11: Lost and Found
Cinnamon's tail-tip flicked with anxiety. She was leading Sabine along a lane on the village outskirts, both of them wearing simple pullovers and dark jeans, a small pack slung over the dog's shoulder. What had her on edge was that neither of them had a lead; no-one had reacted yet, but a tiny little voice at the back of her mind insisted it was only a matter of time.
Once they'd slipped past a gate and into a fairly compact field, a high hedge dotted with trees shielding them from the lane, it began to fade away, her tail stilling. Now she could finally appreciate a finer day than was normal so early in Spring, the skies blue with loose scatterings of soft white clouds, a light breeze with only a hint of chill tousling her fur and clothes, birds flitting and trilling energetically in the bushes.
The ground was still a little soft underfoot, patches of standing water here and there, but they tracked their way across easily enough, up to a stile half-buried in a tumble of brambles.
Sabine frowned. "I'm almost tempted to risk the bullocks."
Cin started tentatively easing strands of bramble aside. "I'd still take a few scratches over being suffocated by a herd of cows with no sense of personal space, thank you very much."
"Says the cat who treats other people like mattresses," Sabine teased, tweaking a feline ear.
"There's only one of me," Cinna rebutted, "and I'm a dainty little ball of fluff. No weight at all."
"I wonder if Ian would agree." The dobermann collected a stick from close by and used it to brush aside the bulk of the bramble fronds.
Enough room now made, Cin hopped over the stile. Sabine was quick to follow, only for the cat to snatch the stick and lob it away. "Fetch!"
The dog crossed her arms and cocked a brow. "Really?"
Cinna shrugged, grinning. "Worth a try." Her gaze wandered along the two dirt-and-grass paths that split off from the stile to furrow through woods that managed to be quite dense even with hardly any leaves on the trees and bushes, one after the other, then returned to the dog, to find them holding the stick again. Her grin widened.
"Hey, it's not like I'm going to eat it," they defended themselves, with a mildly sheepish smile. "I just think they're useful."
"Fair enough." Cin chuckled. "Where do you think we should start?"
Sabine's response was to close her eyes and lift her nose, her nostrils flexing. After a minute or so, she subsided to a crouch, casting around low to the ground. "I might have her," she reported, "but it's old, and there are a few other, newer fox scents confusing things." She lowered her nose right to the floor, then pointed to the right fork. "I think it's going that way. Hopefully things clear up so I can get a better sniff."
Cinna frowned, worried. "Old scents are not reassuring."
Sabine squeezed the cat's shoulder. "Don't give up before we've even gotten started." She led the way down the path she'd indicated, being careful to step around puddles and muddy patches, frequently pausing to check the scents, before finally a small smile grew. "It's her. I'd say she came along here three-ish weeks ago." The smile faltered. "There's a tinge of blood; an injury; caught her ankle, perhaps; and she's young; just into adolescence; and scared; so scared." Her jaw tightened. "We have to find her."
After an hour of searching the woods, though, the most recent scent they'd found was from two weeks prior, and Cin's spirits were flagging badly. She and Sabine stopped to rest in a small, oval clearing, sitting on a fallen, moss-streaked log, the cat's ears low, her face resting in her hands and her elbows on her knees.
"At what point," she wondered, leadenly, "do we accept she's dead?"
"Not yet." Sabine was firm. "Still a lot of woods to cover." She looped an arm around the cat to hug them, and nosed their scalp. "I know it looks bleak right now, but it looked even bleaker for me two years ago, and I survived. She will too, if we've anything to say about it."
Cin almost managed a smile. "Care to tell me more?"
"I think I can manage it." Sabine took a breath. "My first owner was a brute, a hard-muscled tough guy who thought every problem could be solved by punching and spent most of his waking hours drunk or high on something. He was after a big, scary, nasty dog, and when he saw me, a dobermann, practising what he thought was karate, he bought me on the spot." She gave a dry chuckle. "It was actually tai chi. I find it calming.
"It didn't take him long to realise I wasn't actually what he wanted, so he decided to beat me into shape. Literally. I was hit, starved, shouted at, locked into a bare stone room for hours on end, slashed with a flick knife" - she pointed to her facial scar - "and chained outside at night in the rain, or the snow, with no shelter and no clothes. It was a living nightmare, and it very nearly killed me."
Cin, pale with horror, returned the dog's hug, cuddling close. "I don't even...how...how could you get through that?"
"Romance books." Sabine was almost smirking. "I had a secret stash I could delve into on those rare occasions he left me alone, and escape for a while. A couple of times he caught me with a book, and ripped it up, but he never found the stash. The tai chi helped, too. Even then I barely kept it together.
"It ended when he ran out of money for his drugs. People who made him look pleasant began visiting, and before long he'd fled, leaving me locked in the stone room. I was found three days later, on the verge of death by dehydration, when his landlord came for rent. I ended up in a rescue centre, a ragged, broken shell no-one wanted."
"Except Abigail. She'd been in a car crash, t-boned by a drunk driver, and left permanently paralysed from the waist down. She came to the rescue centre looking for a companion, someone to help stave off the dark thoughts, and for some reason I will never understand, of all the AnthroPets there, she picked me."
"Saw past the scarred surface to the sweetheart inside." Cin brushed her face against the dog's. "And look at you now."
Sabine kissed the cat's nose. "Exactly. It wasn't easy, but Abby never gave up, no matter how hopeless it seemed, and we're not gonna give up on your young fox. She's out there, in the woods, and we're gonna help her. Agreed?" She held out a hand.
Cinna gripped it. "Agreed."
For very nearly another hour they searched diligently, until Sabine lit on a fresher scent, from only a week or so prior. It was at the edge of a particularly overgrown and forgotten section of the woods, where the paths were barely visible. Carefully exploring the area, Sabine's stick proving handy, they picked up ever-fresher traces, right up to one that couldn't have been more than a day old, in the shade of a hazel bush.
On the other side of the bush, almost completely surrounded by thick foliage, was a small, clear pool. Across from them, some twenty feet away, was a little open, bare patch, and sitting in it, her feet lapped by the wind-stirred waters, a struggling wild rabbit held up in front of her face, was the young vixen.
Cin frowned with worry at the sight of her. Her rose-pink fur, paling very nearly to white on throat, chest, stomach and tail-tip, was for the most part clean and neat, if dull, but covered a body far thinner than it should have been, shoulders and hips too sharp, ribs showing clearly, face drawn in and eyes red-rimmed, an ugly streak of scar tissue on the side of one shin.
She opened her muzzle wide, and angled the rabbit so her jaws were either side of its neck. Once, twice, three times they tightened briefly, teeth dimpling tawny fur, but never fully bit, then with a wrench and a cry she flung the rabbit away; it tumbled in the mud, then scrambled into the undergrowth. The fox clutched at her face and sobbed.
Cat and dog shared a look, exchanged nods, then the former cleared her throat. The young vixen started, snatching a sharpened stick from a stand of bracken and brandishing it threateningly, terror etched into her face as she stared at them.
"We're friends," Cin assured them, keeping her voice soft and even.
"We brought food," Sabine added, slipping the bag from her shoulder and holding it up.
The fox-girl's eyes snapped wide, her nose quivered, the stick slipped to the ground, then she lunged forward, crashing through the water so fast she was on them before they could react. She grabbed the bag so eagerly she knocked Sabine over, and sat on the dog as she tore into it, pulling out a cheese-and-cucumber sandwich and shoving it wholesale into her muzzle.
"Easy!" Cin pleaded, holding up a hand. "Don't choke yourself."
Tall, tapered ears flushed, and the vixen slipped from Sabine to sit in the shallows, nibbling much more carefully on the next sandwich, pale blue eyes cast down. "I'm...sorry." Her voice was a faint rasp. "Haven't eaten...in two days...and that was...a leftover salad leaf."
"It's all right," Sabine told them, sitting up. "No harm done."
The fox-girl's gaze lifted, to look at the cat. "How's the... little girl?"
"Doing well," Cin answered. "She still asks about you."
Vulpine ears dropped. "I didn't know...she was following me...until I'd reached the woods...and then the blizzard hit. I'm glad you found her, or I don't know...what I would have done."
The cat fought an urge to embrace them. "If it helps, you crossing the field behind my house very likely saved her life."
A very small, wan smile grew. "It was the quickest way." She finished the second sandwich, pulled out a third, sniffed it, and recoiled, tongue sticking out. "Peanut butter? Really?"
"Hey, it's delicious," Sabine protested.
"Then you eat it!" The vixen lobbed it at the dog, who caught it, then grabbed the last one from the bag. "Raspberry jam! Much better!"
Cinna let out a relieved breath. "I think she likes us. No more fear of a pointy stick to the eye."
The fox-girl looked rueful. "I couldn't have used it. I couldn't even kill that rabbit, and I was starving. Some fox I am."
Sabine risked shifting a little closer. "A little secret - I'd have been the same. Can't even kill flies."
The vixen's head cocked as she laughed. "A big tough dog like you?"
"And I," Cin joined in, "couldn't kill a mouse. And I'm a cat. I think the scientists engineered the killer instinct out of us."
Shuddering, the fox-girl huddled into herself. "I don't wanna go back."
"Why not?" Cinna asked, gently.
"Cold. Empty. Lonely. No parents. No brothers or sisters. No-one to talk to, or play with, or cuddle with, or sleep with. It was horrible."
The cat frowned deeply, also moving a little closer, and reaching out a hand to lightly touch the vixen's knee. "You're not alone any more."
The vixen stared at her a moment, then the widest smile yet bloomed and she darted forward to give both the others brief, coy nuzzles. "You wanna know how I escaped?" she asked, a little mischief filtering in.
Dog and cat nodded.
"Pure...dumb...luck." The fox-girl giggled. "The stupid white coats got into an argument, and forgot to close the door of my cell, so I sneaked past them and went looking for the way out. It got pretty scary when they started chasing me, and really scary when one started shooting at me with sleepy darts." She shuddered again. "But I got into the back of a truck as it was leaving, and got away. It took me to a farm, I ran the first chance I got, and after a lot of days ended up here."
"Any idea how long you've been here?" Sabine asked.
"Seen three big moons," the vixen replied.
"So about a month and a half, then," Cin estimated. "I'm amazed you survived so long."
They flapped a hand. "If you call raiding bins and bristling your tail at every noise and huddling in a tree stump at night and gashing your leg when you fall off a wall onto a broken crate 'surviving'. The only good thing about this is the pool."
"It is a lovely spot," the cat agreed. "But would you rather be here or in a clean, warm bed, with a roof over your head?"
"Of course I..." The fox-girl faltered, eyes widening, jaw hanging. "You mean...? You're saying...?"
"I'm saying, my owner is willing to take you in. You'll have a bed, and food, and company, and all you need to do in return is a chore here or there, join in the weekly card games, and let an overly-affectionate cat snuggle with you at least once a day because she thinks you're one of the cutest things she's ever oof!"
Cinna was cut off by a projectile vixen hitting her amidships, bowling her over and peppering her face with kisses.
Sabine roared. "That's a yes!"
Cin sat back up, pressed her lips to the bridge of the fox-girl's muzzle, and cradled her lightly. "Now we just need to figure out how to get you home unseen. Until we can be sure the scientists aren't going to be a problem, only trusted people can know about you."
"I can meet you there," the vixen told her, tail high, eyes bright.
"Bullocks," Sabine stated, simply.
"I can!" the fox-girl insisted, starting to pout a little.
"No, I mean, there's a herd of cows in the field behind Cin's house."
"Oh." The vixen sagged. "I don't like cows, and they don't like me."
"What if you go after dark?" Sabine suggested. "When everyone's in bed, so no eyes to see?"
"That's a plan," Cinna agreed, nodding. "We can leave a window open for you. Wait till the moon's good and high, then come, all right?"
"All right!" The fox-girl beamed, tears in her eyes. "Thank you!"
"Our pleasure." Cin nudged noses. "See you again very soon."
Late that night, the cat and her owner sat side-by-side on their couch, eyes fixed on a nearby open window. Something rustled softly outside it, then two small pink hands gripped the sill, and a pointed, pink and white head rose into view. A pause, a shining grin, and the rest of the young vixen slipped inside.
Ian gasped softly. "Cinna was right; you're lovely! Much too thin, but lovely. Welcome to our humble home. I'm Ian. You are?"
The fox-girl, her fur scrubbed and combed, curtsied politely. "Lily."
Cin closed the window, then draped an arm around their shoulders to lead them upstairs. "You can have my bed; I'll be with Ian."
Vulpine ears tinted. "Can I...can I...sleep with you two?"
The cat studied her for a moment, looked to the man following them, who nodded with a smile, then nosed her cheek. "All right."
Entering the main bedroom, Ian undressed, he and Cinna slipped into bed, then the young vixen, a little self-consciously, nestled in between the pair. She nuzzle kissed both of them, then closed her eyes and in seconds was fast asleep.
"You know, we just might have started something here," Ian noted, as he and Cin caressed lips.
"If we're lucky," the cat murmured, tenderly brushing a kiss onto Lily's scalp, "a family."