(This story is part of the ”Developing Feelings Between Otter and Newt” storyline.)
The three elves stood on the riverbank and watched the fishers haul in a heavy net. Cloudfern stood between One-Leg and True Edge, smiling, his arms folded across his chest. Both of the elves flanking him were frowning.
“You’re right,” True Edge finally grumbled, sounding as if those rarely-said words cost him.
“Aye, you bloody bunghole,” One-Leg agreed grudgingly. “Once you pointed it out, it’s as obvious as the snout on your face, rot you.”
“Buck up,” Cloudfern said cheerfully. “We’ve watched the boy grow every day of his life. Everyone’s eyes have just gotten familiar and stopped looking. But especially this past turn or so, as Otter’s filled out and put on that last late-summer growth spurt — you can’t deny it, can you?”
Both One-Leg and True Edge declined to answer the question, each still standing there with faces like thunder as they watched Otter and Greenweave working together. Despite the early winter chill, both elves were stripped down to their loincloths in the weak afternoon sun. Between them, they towed a net woven of nettle fibers and websilk, and it was filled nearly to the brim with thrashing fox salmon. One big fish managed to fight its way free as the two dragged their heavy load up onto the rocky shore of the Holt River. The salmon splashed back into the water, splattering them both and causing them to laugh. The resemblance had grown undeniable. Otter and Greenweave were of the same height now; both had the same lean, lanky build, and amber-touched brown eyes. Greenweave’s long brown hair was held back in a single braid and Otter’s was loose, but both wore similar sidelocks past the ear. Greenweave’s face was softer and a little more rounded, his nose a little more down-turned. But the cheekbones were the same, as was the open, cheerful expression mirrored on both faces.
“The lad’s got his mother’s chin,” One-Leg sighed, still reluctant to give up his own old wishes, that Starskimmer’s boy was his own son.
“He’ll be broader through the shoulders than Greenweave is, when he’s reached his full growth. Might get a breath taller yet,” True Edge muttered, just as reluctant as his disabled tribemate to give up his own long-fostered wishes. “But Cloudfern’s right, much as I hate to concede anything. After all — given Otter’s skill with the bow, he could have been my son Whitestag’s cub.”
“But Otter’s not,” Cloudfern said, with a wry look for his uncle. “Otter’s Greenweave’s cub. Greenweave’s always thought so, you know.”
Greenweave and Otter had pulled their heavy net farther up the shore. “What are you lay-abouts waiting for?” Otter yelled over his shoulder to his elders, sounding pleased to turn the tables with those words. “Get your clubs and get down here and help us lay this catch out!”
Cloudfern headed down toward the river to join the two fishers. One-Leg and True Edge followed more slowly, both still reluctant to give up old dreams.
“Well, the cub is better off knowing who his true father is,” True Edge sighed.
One-Leg snorted in sour amusement. “You want to bet whether this will put Dreamflight’s tail into another twist? You know how jealous she’s been of Greenweave’s affections for Newt. I’ll wager you she’ll find some way to make this into a personal insult.”
“At least Otter and Dreamflight haven’t been furmates yet. At least there’s that,” True Edge said.
“Appreciate the small favors as you can get ‘m,” One-Leg said as he began to limp down toward the fishers on the rivershore. “Let’s break the good news to be the boy gently, shall we?”
Somehow, Newt had heard the news before he and the other mushroom-gatherers had even returned to the Holt. Otter felt cheated by that. The afternoon had been bad enough already — and now this small pleasure had been taken away from him, too.
"I think it's wonderful!" Newt said, bounding off of his wolf-friend's back and throwing his arms wide to give Otter a warm hug. Otter embraced his friend in return, nuzzling the shorter youth's moonsilver hair. "Now we're brothers!"
"We're not brothers," Otter said sourly, as Newt released him and stepped back to look up at Otter's face. "You're now my grand-uncle." The word tasted bad in his mouth, like sulphur-springs mud. He turned away from Newt's smiling face and squatted down on the riverside, poking up a rock to see if crawfish might be sleeping beneath it.
"You're not happy?" Newt sat down on the riverbank, while his wolf-friend, Browncoat, came to nose curiously at Otter's efforts.
Otter sullenly upturned another rock, then another, less interested in foraging for shellfish than he was in the joy of simple destruction. Water flowed around the new shape of the stones, swirling up ribbons of mud. Dusk was settling, and with it came the wet scent of approaching rain. The breeze that tugged Otter’s hair from his shoulders was crisply cold.
"I thought you wanted to know who your father was," Newt said after a time, when it was clear Otter was ignoring his first question.
"I wanted my father to be One-Leg, if anyone," Otter retorted. "But mostly —" He hesitated, then scooped up a large rock and threw it as far as he could, toward the thornwall on the far side of the river. When that failed to make the thornwall, he flung a second, then a third.
"Mostly?" Newt prompted him gently.
Otter growled under his breath and turned to face his friend. "Being everyone's son was better," he admitted. The pain that welled up with those words surprised him.
Newt leaned against him gently, a comforting weight against his shoulder and side. “It felt special, somehow, didn’t it?”
Otter breathed out slowly, trying to shed the unexpected ache in his heart. Another gust of wind blew at them, buffeting their hair. “Yeah," Otter finally agreed. “Yeah, it did.”
“I know.” Newt picked up a stone of his own. He waited until a fox salmon leapt from the water to jump the stones of the nearby weir, and flung his rock accurately enough to clip the toothy fish’s top fin. “I liked not knowing whether Turtle or Strand was really my father. I could be equally theirs that way. It felt good that way.”
Otter sighed and turned his head to look at Newt. He knew he was older and bigger than the slighter youth, but sometimes, Newt’s wisdom left Otter feeling like the one who was more of a cub. “I liked sharing that with you,” he confessed, feeling another pang of heartache at the words. “I liked it when it was only you and me who were special. And now I don’t have that to share anymore.”
Newt’s sympathetic expression melted into the sweetest of smiles. “We have something even better now,” he said, giving Otter a playful shove with his shoulder. “Because starting today, we’re brothers! Maybe not really brothers by blood, but we’ve got the same father now, so that’s good enough for me!”
Newt’s joy was so infectious, Otter couldn’t help but smile. Newt shoved him with his shoulder again, and Otter shoved right back. Then Otter threw an arm around the other youth’s middle and hugged him tight, pressing his face against Newt’s fine, colorless hair. Newt’s healthy scent — a mixture of Browncoat and crushed herbs and his own unique flavor — filled Otter’s nose and stirred other tangled feelings.
His heart in his throat, Otter nuzzled Newt’s ear. He lapped it, feeling his pulse spike at the tang of salt from Newt’s skin. **I don’t want to be your brother,** he locksent, letting his hunger fog that mindtouch. **Be my lovemate instead.**
Newt’s slender body went rigid in his arms. Another gust of wind blew against them, pelting them in a brief spatter of cold raindrops. Otter felt Newt pull back and while Otter loosened his grip, he refused to let go entirely. “I know you and Foxtail shared furs,” Otter said, looking down hopefully into Newt’s eyes — translucent blue now in the early dusk, not pinkish as they were in bright light.
“Share that with me, too.”
Otter felt his heart seize in his chest. Wounded, he flung himself to his feet. “You could with Foxtail!”
“I don't feel for Foxtail the way I feel about you!" Newt cried, rising to his feet as well.
Otter let those words stop him from retreat. He half-turned to look back at Newt, sensing hope in those words but too wounded too trust it.
“I love you,” Newt said. “You’ve been like a brother to me since I woke up.”
“I want to be more than that,” Otter said. The wind was rising now, and there was another cold spatter of rain as the trailing edge of a rainstorm closed in on them.
Newt nodded slowly. His face was troubled. “I can’t be. Not today. But give me time.”
Otter frowned heavily and scuffed at the rocky shore beneath his booted feet. It wasn’t the answer he wanted. But it was better than nothing at all.
“I’m not going nowhere,” he muttered at last. “And I’ll be just your brother if that’s all you’ll give me. But just so you know it — I do want more. Because what I feel for you is more than just brother-like.”
“I know,” Newt said. “I know.”
The two youths stood for a while in silence, simply looking at each other. The trailing edge of the rain storm finally reached them, bringing a steady pattering of rain. Knowing they couldn’t stand there in the cold rain all night, Otter shrugged and waved an arm toward the Holt behind them.
“Let’s go home. I’ll bet our father is waiting for us, and wondering where we’re at.”
Newt nodded, and when Otter turned to walk for home, he was grateful that his friend fell in step beside him.
Otter knew that it was something, at least.