“Why do I have to help you with this again?” Barkmoss asked as he scraped dried Preserver goo from the floor of the work den.
Swan looked at her older friend. “Well, for starters, your most recent prank caused a lot of trouble for Cubmaker, and this was the punishment enacted against you.” She thought of the mess Barkmoss had gotten the Preservers to make, telling them that Cubmaker would be so happy if they spat lots and lots of goo in her winter work-den. The usually calm-natured elf had not been pleased when she had walked in.
“For starters?” he asked, interrupting her thoughts. “You mean, there’s more?”
“Yes,” Swan said slowly, trying to avoid the redhead’s wide green eyes. He was crafty, she knew, and if she looked too hard at him, she might be tempted to laugh, or to swoon. She wanted to do neither. “There’s more. Aside from promising Cubmaker that you would clean up the mess made during the prank, you also promised that if I helped you clean the den, you would go with me to Passage Falls and the Vast Grasslands.”
She didn’t look at him, choosing instead to focus on the next area of dried Preserver goop, scraping at it with the bone knife she held. She heard Barkmoss laughing, and she felt herself blush, grateful for the long hair that hid her face from his view. “What’s so funny?” she asked in a low voice, trying to hide her sense of embarrassment.
“I’d have gone with you even if you hadn’t helped me clean the den,” he confessed.
“What?” she asked, tempted to throw the now-removed webbing at him. She looked at him now, violet eyes flashing.
The red-headed prankster moved toward her, dropping the cleaning supplies as he moved. It wasn’t a large den, so after a heartbeat he was in front of her, and she could sense a change in the air. Barkmoss’s scent had changed, and she felt her body reacting to it.
“Didn’t you know?” he asked, reaching toward her hand, and helping her up, so that they were face to face.
“Know what?” she asked quietly.
“You’re all grown up, little cygnet. A most beautiful swan indeed. I’d have gone to the two moons and back if it meant I could spend just a little bit of time with you.”
Swan felt disoriented. She’d had a crush on him for some time, but had no idea he… wanted her like this. He’d never given any indication, till now. Her heart was beating faster and she took a tentative step toward him, feeling a rush as he wrapped his arms around her.
“We can finish cleaning later,” he whispered suggestively. “We’ve got all night.”
The sound of morning birds woke Swan from a peaceful sleep. She stretched languidly, recalling the events of the night before. Rolling over, she looked for her furmate, only to find herself nose to nose with Mud, a yearling wolf, and Rosepetal, Moth and Redmane’s cub.
She sat up. “Rosepetal?” she asked. “What are you doing here? Where’s Barkmoss?” The cub giggled. “He said he had lots of fun with you last night, and that I might want to see how much cleaning you got done. He said I needed to know what a clean work-den looked like.” She giggled again, “But I think he was just teasing me because it’s a mess in here. It doesn’t look like you two got anything done.”
Swan looked around, groaning at the sight of the messy den. She was Cubmaker’s apprentice, and she knew the older elf would expect the work done today. Where was Barkmoss?
She looked at the cub and said, “You’re absolutely right, Rosepetal. He was teasing, but I think his target was me, not you. This place is a mess. And Barkmoss needs to come and clean it. He told Cubmaker he’d have it finished today. Could you go and find him, and send him back up here?
“I’m already here, lovely one,” Barkmoss’s voice was filled with mirth. “And I brought some water, heated over at the forge.”
Swan whirled to face him. His smile stopped her from saying anything, and she inwardly cursed at herself for being too easily drawn in by him. She remembered the night before, and felt herself flush again. She waited for it to pass before turning back to the cub.
“All right, Rosepetal, we’ve got work to do, if we’re going to get the den cleaned up for Cubmaker,” she told her.
Rosepetal nodded, then shooed Mud out the den door and started to follow her.
“Oh, Rose?” Barkmoss said, “If you see the silk-mistress, could you distract her for a bit? It might take us a while.”
Rosepetal laughed and nodded, then waved as she left.
Barkmoss moved to where Swan was still sitting, blanket over her lap and hair covering her breasts. He knelt and leaned in. “Should we start cleaning now? Or maybe we can pick up where we left off?”
Swan’s breath caught in her throat. She could feel the response surging through her body, but she also knew what was at stake in the work den. She put her hands on his shoulders, ready to push him away, but then he wrapped an arm around her waist and leaned her back, so all she could see was the wicked gleam of his green eyes. She wanted him, again, as much as he seemed to want her. And there was time.
“Ahem,” Cubmaker’s voice interrupted the pair, causing them to pull away from one another and look toward the elder, who continued, “I’d have thought the den would be clean by now, for sure. Rosepetal said she was supposed to distract me, which told me that perhaps I should come and see the den for myself.”
Swan knew her face was a bright contrast to her white hair, and she didn’t dare glance at Barkmoss, though she could sense his amusement.
“Perhaps the two of you should not be cleaning this den together, Barkmoss?” Cubmaker asked.
“Why not?” he asked mirthfully.
“Because I want it clean. You caused the mess, I expect you to clean it up.” Cubmaker answered.
He replied, “Swan here offered to help me. Who was I not to accept?” Swan could tell he was enjoying himself.
Cubmaker, who had known him since he was a babe, replied, “I doubt my apprentice knew what kind of help you were expecting. But, since she seems to have distracted you, I’ll grant that she might help you clean. Though I think I’ll stay here and supervise as well. That way, you two won’t be so easily distracted.”
Swan felt herself flush again. Then, she reached for her shift and slid it over her head. “Let’s get to work, Barkmoss,” she said quietly. “There’s lots to do.”
Nearby, Cubmaker settled herself against the wall, prepared to watch the pair all day if necessary. Barkmoss returned to the bucket of water he had brought up, and poured it on the floor. Swan waited for the water to cool enough to touch, and began scraping again.
**Later, dear one. We shall make our journey to the falls,** Barkmoss promised in a lock-send.
Swan smiled, then responded, **If we make it that far; we seem to be easily distracted.**
She heard him chuckle as he continued working. **That we are, Swan.**