Tori tapped her pen against her notebook impatiently, racing the seconds as they ticked on the clock. Her eyes were stuck to the laptop in front of her, darting to the top line of the email before scanning the words again. She had been working on getting this grant for months now, and her heart was anxiously trying to decipher what they meant. Her documentary team was working on a special piece about prey species, how they were treated in modern society, and the predators throughout history that made modern life possible.
Visiting the prey farms had been easy enough considering the ranch they approached offered tours of the facility, and she now had all the info she needed on the cattle bred there. Touring the rabbit section had the vixen drooling. She even got a free sample of the meat produced there, which was an unexpected but welcome treat.
That particular ranch raised small prey, breeding obedient rabbits in one quarter, avians in another. The last two quarters were used for breeding and storage; the butchering facility was located off grounds. The vacant gaze of a hare as it met her eyes, studying her not as an equal, but as an unfamiliar face amongst it's normal caretakers, left her stomach growling. Nothing Tori had never seen before.
But prey farms were only step one. What elementary kid didn't learn about how prey were raised and butchered before high school? If her documentary was going anywhere she needed to delve deeper into the relationship they had with prey, how they went from sentient members of society hundreds of years ago to nothing more than cattle to be bred and eaten. There was only one place known on earth where prey still had a bit of free will; a remote civilization high in the arctic. It was very hard to travel there, and even harder to convince the wolves living there that your intentions were pure. The reclusive band of predators rarely traded with the outside world, and were wary of outsiders in general.
So Tori had sat behind the computer and emailed important corporations that dealt with prey, along with popular science and history media, asking for a grant that would cover the trip by plane. Rejection after rejection was returned to her email, until finally one of the largest scientific magazines in her country was willing to cooperate.
"One condition remains before the funds will be fully released to your team," the email read, "if you are unsuccessful in gaining entry, all funds will be revoked and the cost of travel will fall back on you. Additionally, double the funds will be transferred to your team should you capture one of the prey animals on camera, as no current, clear footage exists."
That was all. Tori shifted in her seat and re-read the email yet again. All she had to do was secure their entry to the reclusive community and they'd have the money they needed to complete their research. That and double if she got one of the prey on film. Could she guarantee that they'd let her in once she arrived? Tori's pen finally stilled on the notebook as she opened another browser tab and started to research.
There were no major papers written on the arctic tribe that she hadn't already read, but from what she could see, most were forced to ask questions at the door or observe from a distance. Most of what was known about the tribe came through the rare moments of trade between the wolves and the outside world. The only reason they know of the sentient prey living there was thanks to a brave, patient ursa that stayed and observed their daily activities for a week. Prey were seen playing with predators, mostly young ones, kicking a ball between them and laughing. It should be mentioned that the bear hadn't been allowed entrance, but had been sneaking around and hiding in the snow surrounding the city before being caught. That made travel there even more difficult now that the wolves were wary of researchers prowling around.
Tori worried they'd be less open to visitors after having one spy on them, but when would she ever get this chance again? It wasn't likely that anyone would donate to her documentary without some sort of risk protection, but damn if it wasn't anxiety inducing. Could she convince the wolves that she deserved to enter their home? To interview one of their prey animals? She wondered if free goods would persuade them to invite the team in, considering the visit as one of their trades.
Her tail flicked impatiently behind her. Fuck it. She clicked back to her email and started to type, responding to the magazine with a confident attitude and re-reading her message before hitting send. She would just have to convince the wolves she wasn't a threat, which wouldn't be hard given the fox's small stature and easy-going nature.
"Signed, Victoria Sun," she spoke the last line aloud as she typed it, smirking to herself before hitting send.
Finally her nerves got the better of her. She stood up and began to pace, her fists balled against her chest as she happily began to bounce. She'd done it! The money was on it's way, and she was finally going to make progress on one of the biggest projects of her life. She ran back to her desk and grabbed her phone, dialing Sebastian, her canine partner on this project. The phone rang much too long, and she realized it was nearly two in the morning. Still, the other line picked up, and Tori gave them the good news.
"We got it!" She laughed into the receiver, "Prospects of Predators just approved our grant. We're going to the arctic!" Tori laughed as her teammate started to gawk. She continued to laugh and sink into her chair, her knees suddenly feeling weak. Somehow, admitting it out loud made it real. The voice on the other end went from congratulating her to laughing alongside her.
"We did it," Tori nearly sobbed as she giggled, "we really did it."
A month passed before everything was ready. There was not a day that went by that Tori wasn't planning her questions, carefully typing and revising the words she needed to say. But the interview was secondary to getting through the front door. She had failed to mention to her team that they would only get the money if they could get into the place, so the weight of convincing the wolves to let her in was more than heavy on her shoulders. She'd even secured an important bargaining chip at the last second, which rested in the back with the rest of their luggage, just in case a trade was in order. The entire flight should have been a pleasant celebration between her team, but with the anxiety starting to bore into her mind Victoria was struggling to join the party.
"Tori!" Derek dropped a hand onto her shoulder, startling her out of her thoughts.
Derek was another fox, a head shorter than Victoria, and a valuable member of the team. He manned the camera. And while he was loud and obnoxious while off duty, there wasn't a steadier hand in all the documentary industry. Tori was hesitant to bring him along at first, worried that his flamboyant personality would be off putting to the wolves, but Derek had been an important part of the entire documentary so far and there wasn't a single set of paws she'd rather have behind the camera.
He tried pushing a drink into her hand. "Why do you look so down? We're already on our way! You don't gotta worry anymore," He sat down in the seat next to her, squeezing her larger frame against the wall, "don't tell me you forgot your coat or something?"
Tori rolled her eyes, but allowed herself to relax with an arm around his shoulder. "No, I packed plenty of warm clothes, don't worry. I'm just anxious that we'll be stopped at the door." As the thought of failure crossed her mind again she grabbed the alcohol that Derek offered and took a generous sip.
"And if we are? We still get some shots of the outside, maybe a few seconds of the guard's face before he slams the door in our face," he snickered, earning an elbow in his ribs as Tori pulled her arm back from around him.
"No, there's something I haven't told the rest of the crew," Tori nearly whispered. The team was mingling near the other end of the plane, so it wasn't like they could hear her, but she was still anxious about their potential reaction. She trusted Derek enough to tell him, at least. "There's a chance...if we don't get in, Prospects of Predators will pull our funding."
Derek's eyes widened. "For real? Just like that?" He moved back a bit, giving Tori some space. "So if we're stopped at the door, how are we going to pay for the private plane trip?"
"God, I don't know," Tori buried her head in her hands, allowing her drink to press painfully into her forehead. Derek reached forward and took it from her, placing it on the pull-out table in front of them.
She looked to him through her fingers. Derek was smiling, the familiar expression welcoming.
"We'll figure it out. I'm sure the rest of us are just as excited for this thing as you are, so if we have to pitch in a hundred dollars or something we'd do it in a heartbeat."
Tori smiled back, but it felt heavy on her muzzle. "I hope you're right."
The hours began to blur as the initial excitement died down. Eventually the lights in the plane began to dim, and everyone started settling into their seats for the most uncomfortable sleep of their life. All but Tori, who was anxiously going over the lines of her interview script once again. Sleep seemed so far away.
Another familiar hand on her shoulder. Tori looked up to Derek.
"Come on. Let's get some sleep." He offered, reaching forward with his free hand and gently pulling her laptop shut. "We've still got twelve hours to go, we might as well sleep through some of it."
"What if the pilot needs help? And we're all asleep?" Tori mused, resisting Derek's attempt to coax her to sleep.
"We've got three pilots on board, one of the other two will help them," he laughed. He reached forward to recline Tori's seat, then grabbed a crumpled blanket from the seat next to her.
"Okay, what if we arrive while we're asleep? I won't have time to prepare."
Derek shook the blanket free and draped it over Tori's shoulders, to which the vixen gratefully gripped the corner and pulled it tighter against her body. "Like I said, we have twelve more hours. At least. I doubt you'll sleep even half of that."
Tori tried to protest again, but Derek shushed her. "Tori. Sleep. Now."
She scowled at him, but the fox disappeared from sight before she could scold him for treating her like child. He was right, but damn if it didn't feel bad admitting it. Her mind was fried from the anxiety winding through her body, and she'd need a decent bit of sleep before the big interview. Still, how was she supposed to sleep with the anticipation dominating her mind?
Tori rolled over. Facing the window didn't offer much in the way of a view; it was so dark outside that the moon served as the only landmark. She vaguely remembered something about the pilots wanting to fly on a full moon so they had enough light to see by at night. It wasn't until she closed her eyes and imagined group of pilots planning a trip around the phases of the moon that she finally drifted off to sleep.
Like Derek had said, Tori had plenty of time to wake up and be anxious again. When the sun rose it came as a surprise, nearly three hours early according to her watch, before she realized they'd passed multiple time zones on the way into the arctic, so that made sense. Tori shed her blanket and started out the window. Incredibly, the ground was coated in snow and ice. The odd evergreen broke up the endless white canvas, and eventually bled into a sea of frosted trees. Tori watched in amazement as the forest stretched in front of her, wondering if it would ever end.
A few hours later the pilot was announcing their landing plan. The team was a mess, alive with anticipation and anxiety. None of them had ever landed somewhere covered in snow and ice. Tori could feel the collective silent prayer all around her as everyone found their seat and started to buckle. Even Derek, who had been her voice of reason during the entire trip, was anxiously tying himself into his seat. As the plane descended, Sebastian reminded everyone to pop their ears once in a while to relieve the pressure behind them.
The plane dipped lower and closer to the ground, and while part of Tori was terrified watching the snow approach, another part couldn't look away.
The contents of the plane jostled slightly as the bottom touched the powdered ground, then again as the plane began digging into the snow. The wheels from take off had been replaced with skis, much like that of a water plane, but it hardly made the landing smoother. Tori wondered if there was a better way to land a plane in the snow, and worried for a moment that the pilot would lose control of the plane and send them tumbling into the ground. How awful would it be to travel all this way just to bite it upon landing?
Her fear was exaggerated, luckily, and the plane managed to slow to a complete stop. Everyone sat in silence as they waited for the pilot to say something. Tori searched the snow around them in anticipation, but saw nothing. No wolves, no prey...not even the odd tree dotting the horizon. Were they in the right place?
"Alright guys, let's get your bags together and head into town," One of the co-pilots emerged from the cockpit, scratching at his long ears.
"Wait, we're just going right in?" Tori interrupted, earning a confused look from the tired feline. "I mean, no one's ever been in the village before, are we...are we just showing up looking like we're moving in?"
Now the tabby laughed. "Oh no, ma'am. We aren't near the arctic village. It's illegal to fly too close to them. We've stopped at a research town here in the arctic, the wolves are about an hour's hike west."
Tori felt her shoulders drop. It made sense, but she was still rather disappointed. He must have seen her face fall, because he quickly added, "Oh, but you guys are heading right over. We have a few snowmobiles gassed up and ready to go, should only take twenty minutes but it'll take us a couple trips to get everyone out there at once. You'll still get to visit the wolves today."
Tori perked up immediately, and with a childish excitement she started to gather her things.
The last one off the plane was someone Tori had almost forgotten they'd packed. A young rabbit, not old enough to breed and therefore cheap to purchase, had been grabbed at the last second to take along with them. She'd been packed with the luggage, so it was easy to miss her when first exiting the plane. She followed obediently behind them, shivering slightly in the cold, and gawked at her surroundings. She was tagged through her ear with a number, 43, and was meant to serve as an offering to the tribe of wolves. She made sure the rabbit got on the first trip to the village, in case she needed the bargaining chip early.
The snowmobile trip was mostly uneventful, though Tori wouldn't be able to tell if anything was happening from behind her helmet. Her warm breath fogged the plastic on the front, but if she opened the visor the snow flying by her bit into her fur and stung her nose. So she settled for the condensation and wondered how the driver was able to avoid fogging up their own mask.
It wasn't as chilly as she thought it would be, but she was also aware that the arctic wasn't all cold all the time, and that night time was when things got really dangerous. The three layers of coats on her body also helped. But despite how warm she was staying, the temperature around her seemed to plummet as an odd shape started to grow on the horizon.
The tall wooden stakes in the snow hid all of the civilization from the outside, and the splintering tips high from the ground deterred pests from crawling over. Tori couldn't help but believe she and her crew fell into the "pest" category that warranted those massive walls.
As her driver approached the front gate, a large wooden door that seemed to be part of a much larger gate, Tori suddenly noticed how dry her mouth was. Stepping off of that snowmobile and sinking into the powdered snow beneath was by far the most nerve-wracking thing she'd ever felt.
Tori pulled her helmet off and stepped closer to the door.
Sebastian and Derek were standing behind her, as was a good portion of her team and the trade item she had arranged. More than half of the mammals had decided to rest in town a bit and take the second trip in, but her partner and cameraman had insisted on making the first journey out. It was Tori's job, however, to secure their entry in the first place, so with a deep breath and unsteady hands, she went to knock.
The door opened before her knuckles made contact. The vixen froze, her fist still in the air, and slowly looked up. There was a mountain of fur and muscle in front of her, gray and black streaks decorating the arms of the wolf standing there. He smelled of pine and snow, which wasn't surprising, but there was another musk below it that reeked of blood. There was no doubt in her mind that this wolf could snap her in half with his jaws should he feel so inclined. Instinctively, she took a step back, leaving a set of fresh footprints between herself and the wolf at the door.
"Hi," Tori cleared her throat, "Good morning. My name is Victoria Sun and I'm with a research team studying the domestication of prey and the relationship between predators and prey." She stood tall, keeping her tone even. She found it impossible to meet the wolf's eyes, so she settled for staring at the middle of his forehead. He didn't respond. For the longest time, she stood there watching the hot puffs of breath escape his nose, in complete silence. She tried smiling. The wolf took a step back and began to close the door.
"Wait, wait!" Tori launched forward and grabbed onto the wood. The predator behind the door snarled fiercely as her fingers wrapped around it, and again instinct made her let go. "I just- We traveled so long to get here, I, I just want to ask a few questions, please-" her voice trailed into desperation as he began to close the door again. Her voice stretched into a high pitched plea, "I can't leave empty handed!"
Victoria shocked herself at the shrill cry she made. All of the anxiety and desperation had finally bubbled into something violent, and all of her emotions came out in one exclamation. The door was no longer inching shut, so she rushed to explain herself.
"I can't go home without something. If I leave without an interview, o-or a single word from you, at least, I'll lose everything. I can't even afford the plane ride back home."
"What?" Sebastian barked from behind them, but Derek tapped the canine's chest before he stepped forward.
The wolf behind the door bore holes into her skull with his gaze, staring behind her eyes as if picking apart her soul. Victoria's eyes were warm with tears, the beads of liquid threatening to freeze if they escaped her. Then the wolf looked away, and the door clicked shut.
Victoria stood in the snow, and her heart threatened to fail. She might as well have been slapped in the face by the intimidating doorman, and it took every ounce of strength not to fall to her knees. Derek approached from behind and gently held her shoulders. She wasn't sure how long they'd been standing there before she finally turned around. The sorry look on everyone's faces only made the failure worse, every set of eyes looking at her with pity. She'd failed them. She would have to write another email, thanking Prospects of Predators for their interest, but declining their funding. She would have to tell the rest of the team that they were going home.
Tori tried to smile. "Guys, I think I messed up."
"Now probably isn't the best time to talk about this, but, what did you mean when you said you couldn't afford the plane ride home?" Sebastian barked. Tori closed her eyes and took a deep breath, allowing the cold air to bite at her lungs.
"The funding. We were only granted the money if we managed to get inside the place. I didn't tell anyone because I was confident I could get in. I...we all may need to pitch in the afford the trip back."
Her partner brought a hand to his dark muzzle, rubbing circles between his eyes. "God dammit, Tori. No one has ever stepped across that threshold before, what did you expect, to show up and have them roll out the red carpet? You didn't think that was something to share with me, at least?"
"I'm sorry. I don't know, I was stressed, and excited, and I didn't think...I didn't think we wouldn't get in. Besides, if half the team was aware of the risk, they wouldn't have come along. We can't shoot a full documentary without them." As if on cue, a sound behind the team made them perk up. Tori turned her head, and to her amazement, the door was starting to open again. She spun around, unable to contain the sudden influx of emotion, and dashed over to the entrance. Standing just behind it was the same wolf as before, as intimidating as ever, but resting in front of him was a much thinner wolf with kinder eyes. Though that wasn't saying much, as she still commanded an air of strength around her. Tori chose to study this newcomer, who seemed less hostile.
Despite being shorter than the doorman, this new wolf was still a good foot taller than her, and most of their figure was hidden by her thick coat. Tori hesitated to smile at her, until she offered a grin of her own.
"You have travelled a long way to visit us, haven't you?" Her voice was powerful and gruff, as if his voice box had been scraped through gravel and left damaged. It matched the intimating gait she had, and yet, Tori felt almost comforted by her words.
"Yes," she paused to laugh, then cleared her throat. "Sorry, yes ma'am. It was an eighteen hour trip by plane."
She nodded slow, taking a moment to look over the perky vixen. "I can tell you are an outsider by the layers of extra fur you wear."
Tori blinked. "Oh! The coats. Yes, we're from a much warmer climate."
There was a moment of silence between them before the wolf crossed her arms against her body. "So, you requested an interview. What are your questions?"
Tori jumped, exclaiming and fishing for her notepad buried in one of her pockets. Derek and Sebastian also jumped into action, dropping the bags into the snow and unearthing the camera from within.
"Right! Th-thank you so much, ma'am," Tori finally pulled the notepad free, but then needed her pen. Derek reached over her shoulder with a ballpoint, saving her the trouble of finding her own, and Tori thanklessly began flipping to an empty page. This was it, her mind was swirling from the rollercoaster of emotion she'd just experienced. Not a single question she'd written time and time again came to mind. Tori blinked, then pulled a previous page into view.
"Ah, okay...I suppose we should start with names. I'm Victoria Sun, I'm twenty five years old and I live in a busy city surrounded by other predators. You and I live in very different settings, so I'm interested in learning about everyday life here in the arctic. May I ask your name?" Tori smiled, praying Derek had his camera poised for the wolf's response.
The wolf held her chin higher. "I am known among the others as Chief. My name was sacrificed in order to take my place as leader. Names have power. So it is best for a leader to remain nameless."
Tori was writing subconsciously, her fingers flying to keep up with what she said. So those in power didn't have names? She wondered how deeply they believed the power of a name ran. She abandoned her list of questions and followed this trail instead.
"You mentioned names have power. Is that a religious belief within your community?" Tori asked.
Chief nodded slowly once more. "Our names are related to our beliefs. They were given to us by the ancients, and of the original twenty Names, only twelve remain. Bloodlines die, names fade. It is a natural progression of life. One day the ancients will whisper new Names, but none here have heard their voice in years." Chief paused to catch her breath. "By shedding the name passed down to me, I am able to rule over all bloodlines free of bias."
"Interesting, I think that's smart," Tori's voice seemed higher than normal, though she supposed that was thanks to how deep Chief's voice was in comparison. She flipped back to her questions, scanning the page for a new topic. The documentary was about prey, so it made sense that she ask questions closer to the subject, but she worried jumping straight from culture to prey would be too much for the secretive village. She decided to give it a go, thinking she could always back out and choose a different question if she had to. "Uh...let's see...here, you raise prey alongside you, often as part of the family. Would you mind expanding on this taboo practice?"
The wolf in front of her fell silent. The quiet blanket of snow surrounding them seemed to echo the silence until it felt awkward and stiff. Tori worried she'd hit a sore spot.
"I was hoping to avoid the subject of prey during our talk." Chief spoke this as a statement, insinuating she was done with this part of their conversation. Tori wasn't about to give up so easily.
"I understand. However, our documentary is about the relationship predators and prey have had throughout history, and your tribe has a unique dynamic that has never been seen before. so it would mean a lot to us if we could at least talk about-"
"No," the doorman barked. His word was firm, absolute. Tori flinched away from his voice, not recognizing it as a word until after her nerves stilled. She glanced back at Chief. Her expression was just as stoic, urging Tori to drop the issue. Her mouth suddenly felt dry. She took another breath to still her rapid heart.
"I understand your hesitation. Which is why we have brought a bargaining chip," she took a step back and waved behind her. She wanted to look back, but the fierce eyes trained on her every move made it near impossible to tear her attention away from them. She didn't break their gaze until she felt the familiar velvet fur of the prey rabbit. "I would like to offer one of our own prey in exchange for more information about your own."
Chief stared at the bunny. She shied away from the intimidating bulk, and her eyes fearfully darted around the wolf's face. Then Chief did something that surprised both the prey rabbit and Tori.
She kneeled down. Her shoulders dropped and her muzzle softened into a pleasant smile. One of her hands reached out to the rabbit, open palmed and welcoming. The rabbit sniffed the air cautiously. She took a step forward, and Tori released her arm. She approached Chief and continued to explore her fingers, sniffing at the powerful muscle hidden beneath her skin and fur. Then she hopped forward and glanced back up at her face. When she no longer saw fear, Chief was satisfied. She stood and hooked her palms under the rabbit's arms, swinging her around and allowing her to sit against her hip, much like one would hold a child. One of her hands gently went to the rabbits ear, observing the tag there with a curled lip, and gently unclipped it. As she straightened again her intimidating demeanor returned, effortlessly reminding Victoria that she was in control here. After a moment the rabbit began to tremble in the cold. Chief nodded to the doorman, and the larger wolf reached out for her, tucking her beneath the crudely made jacket he wore in order to share his warmth with the poor thing.
"You have brought us one of the animals you bred into idiocy, despite knowing our beliefs on raising our own. I hope you aren't insulting us?" She asked.
Tori blanched, then shook her head fiercely, "No! God, no! Of course not, ma'am. I'm just aware that you occasionally trade with the outside world, and was hoping this prey would be worth a trip inside."
Chief blinked slowly. "You would trade another animal's life as if it was yours to give away?"
"Well, I purchased her, so I suppose in a way I do own her," Tori swallowed, and her mouth was dry, "but this is an excellent example of how different our cultures are! And, a proper documentary would help the rest of the world understand that, as well."
She was silent for a moment. "Victoria. You and I are from two different walks of life. I am responsible for protecting every soul that resides within these walls. To invite a stranger in, who has no knowledge of our traditions, would be a cultural shock to both you and the residents of our tribe. If I let you in, who's to say how many more would wind up at our door begging to enter and pointing to you as an example? You pose a threat to our people. And for that reason I cannot permit entry."
"I-I won't say anything," she gawked, grasping at anything she could as her chances of getting in began to slim, "I will only speak to you, and I will keep my voice low. I'm a small predator, a head or two shorter than you! I'd even let you search me before I go in, if it's weapons you're worried about. And it's not like turning people away has stopped people from showing up, right? People are always going to try and get in, no matter who you let in and keep out."
Chief shifted uncomfortably. "If you have no more interview questions for me, I think it would be best for you to leave."
Tori felt her ears begin to fall. But she lifted her notebook again and stumbled over her next question, "yes, I understand. Um...how long does a leader usually remain in power? How is a new leader chosen?"
Chief responded immediately, "Those most eligible are invited to rule. The wolves vote between the pool of animals that accept the invitation. I was voted into rule recently, after the passing of the last Chief, but we do not serve for life. Each Chief sets their own term. I am to lead for three years, but may go longer should no proper candidates present themselves by the end of my rule."
Tori struggled to look over her list. All of these questions she'd prepared, they were all things that had been asked a million times already. One internet search could pull up Chief's words, almost identical, from pervious interviews. It was as if they had a script to follow each time a desperate reporter appeared at their door. She looked up, a new resolve in her gaze, and took a deep breath.
"Chief, I have nothing but respect for your culture, your people. I apologize if I've come across as a tourist, or if I've treated your tribe as some sort of side-show anomaly. I'm a bit desperate, which has interfered with the fact that I'm a professional, here for professional reasons. Educational, even. Our documentary wishes to explore why prey animals were bred into...what did you call it, idiocy? It's not exclusively about your tribe, we're not here to stir up trouble. We just want to see how prey are raised in a place where they're still sentient." Tori finished speaking and held her breath.
Chief studied her. The perky little vixen had suddenly gone serious, which she wasn't aware she could do. Despite how bubbly she was, Victoria seemed to have pure intentions. Maybe it was because she was new to leading her tribe, or the sincere look in the fox's eyes, but a wall seemed to dissolve inside of her. Not that anyone could tell from the outside, her figure stayed stiff and stoic aside from the odd ruffle of fur in the wind.
"Alright." She continued before Tori could process what she'd said. "You will be allowed to enter, but you will be the only one allowed to enter. No cameras. Just one interview, and you will leave. You will follow the rules as they are presented to you. You will address the wolves only when you are spoken to. And you will cause no harm to the Gifts, under any circumstance. These are my conditions."
Victoria almost fainted. She smiled, then fought to hide it. As usual, her emotions bubbled up inside of her until she was wagging her tail behind her, unable to stop it. "Thank you, thank you so much," she nearly sobbed, "I promise, I'll do whatever it takes. I'll follow your rules as strictly as needed. Thank you,"
Chief nodded back to the doorman. The larger wolf stepped away with the rabbit.
Tori looked back to her team, who offered thumbs up and smiles. She stepped back to them, and Derek knocked a hand against her back.
"Way to fuckin' go!" He laughed. "I got a few good shots of you two at the door, but damn what I wouldn't give to film on the inside."
"We'll just have to do with the footage we've got," Tori sighed, "honestly I'm amazed she's letting me in at all. I thought she was going to lose her patience and just snap me in half at one point," her heavy breath turned into a laugh. "You guys get back to town and explain to the others that we'll be working from there."
"What, and just leave you here?" Sebastian winced. "What if there's an emergency? I think we'd better stay here, camp outside for a bit, just until you get out of there safely."
"Sebastian, please," Tori laughed, "you want to set up camp in the Arctic? When you oculd be resting inside beside a fire instead?"
The canine blinked. "Okay. I see where you're coming from, but I'm still worried."
She offered a smile, then gave him a quick one-armed hug before stepping away. "Don't be. I'll be alright. Go back to town and sleep somewhere warm." Tori didn't give him a chance to respond before she turned away, nearly jumping with each step to escape the snow. After a moment the snowmobile's roared back to life, and Tori allowed her one more glance back at Derek and Sebastian before she took her first step over the doors threshold.
The atmosphere on the opposite side was almost a comical shift from the cold, muted landscape beyond the door. The main entrance was a short walk before it opened into the village, homes being the first thing to dot the land. Tori could see larger buildings further in, and tried to guess which one was the house where prey was raised. She watched the doorman, who followed behind them with her gift rabbit still tucked warmly between him and his coat, to see where he would take the prey. But he never left Chief's side, and chose to keep the rabbit sheltered against him from the cold.
Each home was built of dark wood and stone, clay embellishments decorating certain windows and doors. Smoke pillars climbed high in the air above them, and children laughed and ran on the ground below. A few stopped to stare, but most continued with their game and ignored the outsider.
Tori wanted to ask a million questions, her mind was alive as she scanned each side road and dirt path. More and more curious wolves stared at her, all muted colors with bright eyes. The smallest wolves had brightly colored coats, all whites and light grey, and Tori wondered if this helped the young ones blend in with the snow.
Many times she opened her mouth, only to snap it shut as she remembered the conditions in which she was allowed to be there. Don't talk unless spoken to first. Luckily Chief didn't make her wait long before her first lesson.
"The ancients who gave us our names were not just wolves. Many species came together, knowing they needed one another to survive, and gave each of their tribes their own set of Names. One of our ancients was a reindeer, another a wolf, another a crow. There are many more who's appearances have been wiped from our memories, but we know there were a great deal of prey species amongst the predators. For that reason, we refuse to treat our prey as cattle to be bred and slaughtered. To do so would insult those who helped establish our tribe and gave us out Names. Instead, we raise them alongside our own children, until they are old enough to bear kids and sacrifice their lives to us. There is an important connection between each child. We are all family." Chief spoke so quickly that Tori struggled to keep up. She abbreviated certain words, desperately praying she'd remember what the hell they stood for later.
"When one of our young reaches adolescence, they are given their first Gift, and earn their title as a Keeper. It is a huge honor, and each year there is a celebration to assign each new Keeper from that year their own Gift."
"So does each Keeper get- oh, I'm so sorry," Tori caught herself, throwing a hand to her mouth. Chief nodded at her, giving her permission to continue her question, and she spoke again, "Each Keeper, do they receive the prey animal they're intended to eat? Like, do they raise them as a personal food cache?"
"Please, call them Gifts. We do not enjoy viewing our family as food." Chief said.
"Yes, of course, I apologize. Does each Keeper only receive one Gift? And does that Gift then feed them in the future?"
Chief shook her head. "We would go hungry if that were the case. The Gifts have many children before they give themselves to us, and families adopt multiple Gifts to raise. But when an adolescent earns the title of Keeper, they are being introduced to caring for their own Gift. Mothers and Fathers can care for infants, but Keepers are only assigned Gifts who are a few years younger than them. Giving an infant to someone who is still a child themselves would not be wise," She smiled.
During their conversation the two had wandered further into the small village, bypassing multiple homes. Chief stopped just outside of a small hut that sported clay windows and a strong pine door. Tori couldn't help but stare, thinking about how much she could have made if she got this on camera. Her attention was stolen when the door crept open. A pair of eyes appeared from behind before widening at the sight of Chief.
"Momma!" A shrill cry sounded, and the door was kicked the rest of the way open. A perky young wolf with snow white fur bounded over to Chief, jumping at the last second and wrapping her arms around Chief's body. Chief hugged him back, laughing at her son. The younger wolf still looked like a pup, and Tori guessed he was no older than four.
"Hello Juniper. Where are your sisters?" Chief asked, peering into the house through the now open door. Tori followed her gaze.
Just beyond the threshold, hiding in the dimly lit room, were two more figures. They watched Tori curiously, looking over her bright red fur and white muzzle. She imagined her color was odd to animals that lived in the arctic. She probably stuck out like a sore thumb. Tori offered them a smile, causing the two to duck further into the room without a sound.
"Snowberry, come meet our guest. Bring Gift Flora." Chief waved a hand their way.
From inside, one figure took the hand of the other. Then they emerged together.
The wolf looked much older than Juniper, but she was still looked at Victoria with cautious eyes. Her fur was spotted with darker fur, but the majority of it was still light. Most notable were her arms, which had the beginning of dark streaks that resembled her mothers. Cowering behind her was a young reindeer. Her hands were perched on the wolf's shoulders, and she peered around the predator's shoulders in fear. Neither of them had ever seen another predator, let alone one so brightly colored and strange. Victoria smelled of something foreign and warm, like what they imagined a beach would smell like. She wore too many clothes made of odd fabric. All that to say she was strange and new, and they were cautious.
Tori looked to Chief, who nodded, already knowing what the fox was silently asking. She turned back to the two sisters, smiling like a madman. She crouched, resting her knees on the cold dirt.
"Hi there. I'm Victoria. You can call me Tori, if you'd like. It's very nice to meet you."
The wolf blinked. She cast an anxious glance at her mother. Chief had lifted Juniper, and was holding him against her hip, not unlike she had done earlier with the rabbit prey she'd been presented. "Go on, Snowberry. Say hello."
Snowberry looked back to Tori. She did not smile. "Hello..." came a mumbled introduction, "I'm Snowberry."
"That's a very nice name," Tori tilted her head, "do you have a nickname like me?"
Snowberry blinked. "What's a nick-name?"
"It's like a shorter version of your full name. Like how I'm Victoria, but other people call me Tori."
"Oh! Yes, some of my friends call me Berry. Is that the same?" She asked, and Tori nodded, laughing.
"Exactly! May I call you Berry?"
Snowberry smiled faintly and looked to the ground. "Yes..."
"I'm Flora!" The reindeer cried.
Victoria froze. Her eyes darted to Flora and stared intently. The sound of prey, speaking. Something she had never heard before. A creature her ancestors hunted and devoured, standing in front of her defenseless and shy. There was an intense urge to launch forward, to grab Flora. Tori wasn't sure where that came from, or what she'd even do once the reindeer was in her grasp, but the feeling was as intense as an itch. She looked away when she saw a hint of fear in the prey's gaze. Flora ducked again behind her sister to escape the stranger's harsh eyes. Tori blinked and shook her predatory thoughts away. She hadn't meant to scare the poor thing.
She tried to start over. "Oh, hello Flora. It's very nice to m-"
"It's GIFT Flora," Snowberry barked at her, snapping her teeth at the fox. Tori flinched back, shocked, and her confusion must have made the wolf realize what she did. But instead of apologizing, Snowberry stood taller in front of her little sister. "You have to call her Gift Flora. That is her name. You can't give her a nickname."
"I'm so sorry," Tori murmured. She got to her feet and lightly brushed the mud from her knees. "I had no idea."
"It's alright. I should have explained before we arrived," Chief apologized, "all Gifts are addressed as such. Snowberry is her Keeper, so she's right to be protective of her first Gift. Only a Keeper may address their Gift without the formality. It was an honest mistake."
Tori felt hurt, but she looked back curiously to the two sisters. "I'm sorry. I understand why you'd be so protective of Gift Flora, since she's your first prey."
The two blinked. Snowberry asked, "my first what?"
Chief suddenly reached forward, wrenching Victoria back by her arm. The fox let out a yelp of surprise, but allowed the wolf to pull her along until they were out of earshot of the younger wolves. Chief placed Juniper down and told him to join his sisters. Then she turned back to Tori with a menacing gaze.
"You had better start treading carefully, fox. Our family is not prey. We do not come into your home and talk of eating your loved ones, I would appreciate it if you did the same." She finally released Tori's arm, leaving a sore spot that the fox was sure would bruise. She looked up with tears, her eyes straining to stay trained on Chief's.
"I'm sorry, I really am. I'm trying to learn, things here are so different from what I know. Please give me another chance, I didn't realize you saw Fl...Gift Flora as a daughter."
Now Chief's face softened. "As much as any other child in my home. Juniper and Snowberry may be kin by blood, but I was very close to Gift Flora's mother. When she gave her life to us, she insisted her youngest be raised alongside my own. I took her in despite my position as leader. I helped raise Gift Flora until Snowberry reached adolescence, and then she took over. With my help, of course. She is as much my child as the others, and I will not allow you to view her as a meal."
Tori nodded. "I understand. I will do my best to stop thinking of her as prey, and as an equal instead."
Chief did not return her gesture. "See to it that you do."
They returned to the three siblings. Tori cleared her throat and tried again. "Gift Flora, I apologize. The word I used was from my home, not yours. Don't worry about it," she smiled. The reindeer looked up, and she offered a small, forced smile of her own.
"Victoria would like to talk with Gift Flora and ask her some questions. Let's go inside."
Victoria snapped her gaze to Chief. Was she really about to enter one of their homes? She would be the first outsider to do so in god knows how long. Her heart started to race as the wolf lifted a hand and waved her in. Tori looked back to the others, who had already stepped inside the house, and took a deep breath. Her tail started to wag as she followed them, trading the soft mud beneath her feet for hard stone floor.
It was considerably warmer inside the home, which Tori assumed was the fault of the large oven near the back of the main room. A fire crackled low beneath the hardened stone above it, and sent a warm glow through the home. It was a welcome change from the bitter cold air just a step outside. Immediately Tori searched the room for Chief's spouse, curious to see what kind of wolf was fit to raise a leader's children. But she didn't see anyone that hadn't entered with them. She looked to Chief. The doorman had followed them in, but all he did was place the rabbit down on the floor before turning to leave. Tori very much doubted he was the father of Chief's children.
Snowberry and Gift Flora were looking curiously at the rabbit that had been placed in front of them. The newcomer smelled like Victoria, but looked very, very different. The adults turned to talk amongst themselves, leaving the rabbit to sniff aimlessly at the air.
Snowberry stepped forward, poking her muzzle closer to the curious creature, and froze as the rabbit looked at her. The bunny's eyes widened and she collapsed, tripping over her large feet as she stumbled to escape the unfamiliar face.
"It's okay," Snowberry said. She walked closer, but froze when the bunny continued to shy away from her. "You don't have to be scared, this is my house. My name is Snowberry. This is my sister, Gift Flora."
At the mention of her name, the reindeer stepped forward giggling. "Hello!"
The bunny looked to the two and wiggled her nose, testing the air between them. They looked friendly enough, and their body language did not suggest they were an imediate danger. The fur on the back of her neck began to settle as they continued to speak to her.
"What's your name?" Gift Flora asked. The rabbit did not respond, nor did she seem to understand the question. Gift Flora turned to Chief, but her mother was busy talking to Victoria, so she was left to decipher this puzzle on her own. She looked back to the bunny.
"Can't you talk?" Snowberry stepped forward as she spoke, offering a paw to help the bunny off the floor. The rabbit did not understand the gesture and sat still on the ground. "Huh. She seems kind of broken."
"Come on, Berry! Let's take her to our room!" Gift Flora giggled. The perky reindeer pushed past her predator sibling and grabbed one of the bunny's hands. The rabbit was yanked to her feet and forced to stumble after Gift Flora as she dragged her out of the room.
The sisters started to laugh as the bunny began skipping behind them, doing her best to keep up with the more athletic and active strangers.
"May I ask a question?" Victoria said.
Chief nodded. "Now that we are out of earshot of the rest of the village you may speak freely. Thank you for asking, and for following the rule until now."
Victoria began to beam, her tail fast enough to kick up a bit of dust behind her. "Thank you, ma'am. Um, where is your spouse? Husband? Do you get married here?"
"The ceremony is different from what you know, but yes. We come together once a year to search for a life partner. It is a celebration much like that we hold for our children, but it includes a large dance between newly formed couples at the end of the night." As her description shifted, her shoulders visibly began to sink.
"My partner was lost to the recent storm. Yuko tended to the late Chief as he grew more and more ill, and by the time he began showing symptoms of his own it was too late. Rather than risk spreading his illness, Yuko took the other sick wolves and left, sacrificing their lives for the good of the village. The sick children stayed, as did the elderly and those unable to travel, and no one was forced to go should they prefer to die among friends. It was a very brave and selfless thing that Yuko did, but not a day goes by that I don't wish he was here, with our children, and with me. I miss him deeply."
Tori's tail finally stilled. "That sounds just awful. I'm so sorry to hear that."
Chief smiled. "Thank you, Victoria. That's kind of you. One day I will join the yearly dance again and find a new partner, but for now I am still healing from that loss."
"I'll tell of the dance, and the weddings, but I'll leave out the sickness. It seemed personal, I don't think you'd want that told to the entire world." Tori glanced up from her notebook as she scribbled notes there.
Chief nodded. "I am grateful to hear that."
"Momma momma!" The familiar shrill cry of Juniper came bounding in from an adjacent room, and he held up what appeared to be a shirt. "This?"
Chief turned away from Tori. The fox watched the way she interacted with her children, and even started to take notes about the subtle changes in body language as she talked to Juniper. Her appearance in general was more relaxed, her muscles weren't tensed as if ready to strike. Her expression softened, her eyes were wider and her brow was lifted. Even her smile, which always seemed guarded with shared with Tori, was wider when speaking to her son. It was clear by the way she crouched to meet him face to face that Chief held nothing but love for her child.
"Ok, you want to put on this one now?" Chief laughed. Juniper nodded and jumped up and down, grabbing at his collar and trying to pull the first shirt off of him. "Alright, you little menace. Come here."
Tori watched Chief take off the shirt and put the new one on. Before Juniper could run off giggling Chief handed him the old shirt and reminded him to place it with the rest of his dirty laundry.
"And what do we say when someone helps us?" She barked. Juniper poked his head back around the corner and smiled a toothy grin.
"Thank too!!" He shouted before disappearing again.
Chief turned back to Tori, chuckling to herself. "Close enough."
"He's so adorable," Tori offered, smiling at the doorway Juniper had disappeared into.
The wolf beside her nodded, clearly lost in thought. "Juniper has the spirit of a jumping spider. He's like his father in that way. I see him in everything my children do, much like I see Gift Flora's mother in her actions. Even though they're gone, it feels as if they're still here." She looked to Tori. "Do you have any offspring?"
Victoria shook her head. "Nope. I consider myself married to my work, I guess? I don't have time to raise a family right now. I couldn't leave and visit the arctic with a family tying me down, you know? Besides, I'm not good with kids." She laughed, but Chief did not laugh with her.
"I hope you reconsider one day. I think you would create a beautiful kit."
Now it was Victoria's turn to blush. "Oh, thank you. Maybe one day," she smirked.
"Now, why don't you go an interview dear Gift Flora? Snowberry will be close, so do not worry about asking the wrong question. She will correct you."
Tori blinked and started shifting her weight anxiously from foot to foot. "Thank you so much, ma'am. I say this with every fiber of my being; it means the world to me that you'd allow me to come into your home and talk to Gift Flora."
"Perhaps this interview will keep the researchers off of our doorstep for a year or two," she chuckled. "Go."
Tori didn't need another push. She hoped forward and nearly danced into the room where Keeper Snowberry and Gift Flora had disappeared.
As she turned the corner, the first thing she noticed was that everyone's back was turned to her. Well, except for the prey rabbit she'd brought along, who was now mingling with the other children. The bunny stood in front of them with her arms outstretched, and she'd been dressed in one of Juniper's shirts. In fact, it was the same shirt Chief had just taken off of him before he dashed out of the room.
Juniper was laughing, his high pitched cackle brightening the room, and Gift Flora was laughing as well. Snowberry smiled, but she didn't find the display quite as hilarious as her less mature siblings.
"Let's give her a name," Gift Flora suggested.
"Good idea!" Snowberry inched closer on the ground, looking up at the bewildered bunny. "Okay, okay...I'm, Snowberry," she pronounced the words slowly, tapping her chest with an open palm. She then moved to Flora, tapping on her chest. "Gift, Flora."
Snowberry then reached forward, placing her open palm on the rabbit. Silence. She waited a moment, then repeated the motion, "Snowberry. Gift Flora," she ended with her hand on the rabbit's chest.
The rabbit seemed to stiffen, then sniffed the air, but she still didn't respond.
"Okay, she definitely doesn't have a name already," Snowberry sighed, dropping her arm to her side. "What do you think we should call her?"
"Sock!" Juniper laughed, pointing at the sock that had been haphazardly placed on the rabbits large foot.
"No, I don't think so," Berry laughed, sharing a giggle with Flora. "She has a hole in her ear, see? Maybe we can name her after that defining feature."
"I would hate to be named after a hole in my ear," Flora huffed, "We should name her something related to nature, like we are! Do you think she's gonna be our sister?"
Snowberry nodded. "I don't know, but that's a good idea. What about Pinecone? She's got mostly gray fur, and look, there are dots of brown in there. Like a reverse pinecone..."
"Look!" Flora interupted her, pointing at the bunny. She was tilting her head at Snowberry. All eyes turned to the rabbit as she reached forward and placed her open palm on Snowberry's chest, just as the wolf had done to her. No one moved until she removed her hand.
"Snowberry," the wolf said, and the bunny reached forward to touch her again. Snowberry began grinning, and frantically she said "okay, Gift Flora?" The bunny looked to Flora, startling the reindeer. The bunny moved her hand to the other's chest, and Snowberry cheered out loud.
"She's learning! Okay, okay, look," she got the rabbit's attention and pulled her hand off of Flora's chest. "Snowberry," she pointed at herself, "Gift Flora," then at Flora, "Pinecone," she finished by placing her hand back on the rabbit. The bunny sniffed, then smiled.
Snowberry sat on her knees, smiling like a child. "Gift Flora."
The bunny lifted her hand to Flora.
"Snowberry." And then to the wolf.
Finally, Snowberry said her new name. "Pinecone?"
And the bunny reached to her own chest. The two sisters lept up and started to clap, startling PInecone at first, before she started to mirror their movements and clap for herself as well. Juniper clapped along, but only because everyone else was.
"Gift Flora?" Tori called. All eyes turned to her, three heads swiveling at once. The reindeer's cheerful smile suddenly disappeared as the unfamiliar predator came into view once more. Tori offered a smile of her own, but it felt forced. "I was hoping I could ask you a few questions?"
Gift Flora looked to her sister. Snowberry was still young, only sixteen come next summer, but she was one of the only creatures Flora trusted to take care of her. Snowberry saw the anxiety in her sister's gaze, so she stood from the ground and led her little sibling over to Tori.
"Momma said it was okay, so don't be shy. I'm gonna be here the whole time."
Gift Flora looked up to meet Victoria's gaze. The fox stifled the urge to pounce forward on the brave little reindeer, instead pulling her pen free from her coat pocket and clicking it open. The first thing she noted was the color of Gift Flora's eyes, which was a beautiful light blue. Like the sky, Tori thought, void of clouds.
Much like Tori, Gift Flora was having mixed feelings about this interview. Victoria didn't look at her like the rest of her family did. Her gaze stirred something primal deep in her belly, and it made her feel lightheaded when the fox's eyes narrowed into slits open viewing her. She had never seen that look before. It scared her, but she didn't know why.
"Alright, let's see...Gift Flora. Like I said, I'm Tori, and I come from very far away. We live in very different homes, can you tell me a little about your life here in the arctic?"
Gift Flora blinked. She didn't want to take her eyes off of Victoria for a second, but her eyes had started to dry and she was forced to close them. Even that millisecond of darkness was enough to frighten her, make her wonder what Victoria would do when Flora couldn't see her.
"Um...there's lots of snow, and um...we uh...there's lots of snow, and we play in it a lot. But when it's cold we have to take breaks, or else we get too cold, and um..." Gift Flora struggled to take her frightened little eyes off of Victoria. There was a familiar fear worming it's way into her heart, like that feeling of dread she got when gazing out of her window into the pitch black night.
Tori's smile slowly started to waver. "Are you alright?" she asked, stepping forward and offering a paw to the raindeer. Gift Flora matched her step back, shaking her head.
"N-no it's okay," her breath caught in her throat, "I...I..."
"Why don't we take a break?" Snowberry interrupted, stepping protectively between her sister and Victoria.
"Wha-? But we only just started," Victoria whined.
Snowberry shot her a look. "I said we're taking a break."
Tori watched in silent defeat as Gift Flora turned and quickly stepped deeper into the bedroom. Snowberry offered the fox an apologetic look before following behind her little sister. Tori stood where she was, deciding observing from a distance how the Keeper and Gift interact was the next best thing to actually asking questions.
"Here, Flora. You wanna watch some cartoons?"
"Can we?" She softly asked.
Snowberry kicked aside a blanket that had been crumpled into a makeshift pillow out of the way, revealing a very old television. Tori wondered what was traded in order to receive it, and she noted the familiar logo on the side. Her rational mind told her to give Gift Flora some space, but her curiosity convinced her to wander closer to the old machine.
Tori caught sight of the stack of VHS tapes and gasped.
"You watch Tay the Hero?" She brought a hand to her mouth, barely containing her laugh. "Oh my gosh! That was my absolute favorite!"
"You like Tay?" Gift Flora looked up. Her eyes widened a bit as her pulse quickened. There weren't many animals she shared her cartoons with, and even fewer who would rather sit still and watch them with her instead of running around outside. Gift Flora had yet to meet a single other fan of Tay the Hero.
"It used to air when I was very young. I was obsessed! My mother likes to joke about how often I'd sit in front of the television, even when all they were showing were reruns. I don't even remember most of the episodes, I was so young," Tori shook her head slowly, lost in nostalgia. "They don't show it anymore on cable, I don't know the last time I saw it."
Gift Flora smiled. "Would...would you like to watch it with me?"
Tori glanced down, shocked by the timid reindeer's invitation. "Really? May I?"
She nodded, then ran over to the television. Snowberry was placing the tape into the television, allowing the old thing to roar to life as it read the VHS. Gift Flora planted herself on the ground, crossing her legs. Then she looked back to Tori.
"Come on, Tori!"
Victoria felt her heart melt. She wandered over and sat next to Gift Flora, joined soon after by Snowberry, and even Juniper.
The prey rabbit had wandered over, her attention caught by the odd sounds and colors on the flashing screen. Soon, every child had their eyes fixed on the screen as the first episode began to play.
The memories started coming back to Tori, who began to hum along to the theme song. Gift Flora caught onto this and sang with her, the two gradually starting to sing the words, until they were proudly yelling the final words "Tay the Hero!" at the ceiling. When it finished Tori laughed, followed by Gift Flora's own giggle.
"I guess I remember more than I thought I did about Tay," Tori chuckled. She then fell silent, allowing the nostalgic cartoon to play in front of her from start to finish.
After a good thirty minutes of cartoons the sound of footsteps interrupted their watch party.
Chief stood in the doorway, watching the team of entranced fans. She smiled, then knocked against the doorframe. "It's very quiet in here. Is everything okay?"
"Momma! Tori knows about Tay!" Gift Flora barked, leaning back to look at her mother as she spoke. "She used to watch it when she was as little as I am!"
"That's interesting," Chief nodded, "have you already finished answering her questions?"
"Oh," Gift Flora looked to Tori. The primal fear in her stomach had long since dissipated, and looking back she couldn't understand why it had been there in the first place. "We took a break to watch Cartoons!"
"Well I think you should get back to it. It will be dark soon, and Tori needs to get back to town before sundown."
"Awwww," Gift Flora whined, "Can't she stay for tonight? Like a sleepover?"
Chief shook her head. "No. You know she cannot stay here."
"But I wanna watch Tay with her!" Gift Flora nearly cried, moments from throwing a tantrum.
"Flora," Chief's stern voice cut through the young reindeer's whine. She huffed, but dropped the issue. Chief looked to Tori, who had watched the interaction with interest. "The sun will set in less than an hour. Please finish your interview so you may return to town before nightfall."
Tori nodded, then watched the wolf leave the room. She turned back to Gift Flora. For some reason, it was easier now to look upon her as an equal. Maybe it was the fact that they were being raised so similarly, with such similar interests. It made it easier to look at her as an individual, rather than an anomaly. She smiled, and it was mirrored in the little reindeer.
"Alright, a few questions, then we can watch more Tay the Hero until I have to leave. Deal?"
Gift Flora nodded, smiling like mad. "Deal!"
She lifted her notebook and flipped to her script. Then, after a moment, Tori flipped to an empty page and scribbled "Gift Flora" at the top, abandoning everything she had planned to ask in favor of the important stuff.
"So," she started, "tell me a little about your family, and how you were adopted into it."