(This story is a sequel to ”Shedding the Old”, and is part of the ”Conflict between Windburn and Foxtail; and Foxtail & Notch’s Cunning Plan” storyline – see listing for more stories.)
He caught her scent as he made his way past her den, climbing up the Father Tree to his own as he returned from the day's punishment chore, gutting and cleaning fish for his uncle Suddendusk. Only this time, he paused. It wasn't the cold scent he'd been catching for nearly two hands of days, her presence lingering in the empty den, its occupant who knew where. Or rather, he didn't know where, and if anyone else had seen her, they hadn't said anything to him. No one was speaking to him very much in general. Even Foxtail herself; she was no doubt angry with him for sweet-talking her into the prank that had gotten them in so much trouble, blaming him for not being selected for the word-hunt team. (And he was beyond furious about that, too — everyone knew he was the ideal choice for the team!)
The scent that reached Notch's nose as he passed her den this time, though, was warm and alive. He caught his breath, a smile creeping across his face.
Foxtail had finally come home.
Hopping onto the ledge in front of the den's entrance with a silent, practiced ease, Notch softly scratched at the leather doorflap. **Foxtail. You're back.** He lock-sent his greeting in case the chief's wild daughter didn't want her return advertised just yet, adding impressions of lonely missed you want you to the sending. **May I come in?**
Nothing but silence answered him for a long moment and, had he been anyone else, he might have begun to worry. Finally he felt the whisper of a lock-sent laugh. **Get in here, Notch. Don't let the flap hit you on the rump in your hurry.** With the words shared and open now, though, he could feel the undertones that reflected his own but more — loneliness and missing and wanting, shaded with something that he could not quite put a finger on and pin to the ground. A slight rustling sound from within the den and a whiff of her warm, inviting scent distracted him. He hoped she was smiling, too. A smile would be a nice change in a greeting.
Notch slipped inside and tied the doorflap closed behind his back as his eyes adjusted to the darkness of Foxtail's den. The air was heavy with her presence, but she was nowhere to be seen. **...Foxtail?** he sent again, cautiously keeping one hand on the tie he'd just fastened in case he had to make a quick escape. She hadn't seemed angry with him, but it was better to be safe than blindsided by a furious elf-maiden who was nearly as crafty (in her own way) as he was. **Please don't play games. Not with me.** His sending was filled with hurt.
"I'm not," she answered quietly, her voice almost too loud in the silent den. The sound combined with motion on his right to draw his attention and Notch turned, hand still lingering on the tie. Foxtail stood at her solitary, beloved window and the faint light edging in around the pelt over it created an eerie back-glow to her slim form. She cocked her head to one side, expression still masked by dimness. **I just don't want...** Hesitation laced with the strange underlying emotion interrupted her sending and she shrugged with one shoulder. He watched as she adjusted the fur draped over her shoulders and it gapped a bit in front. But the shift was not nearly enough to understand what she could possibly be hiding.
"If you laugh at me, Notch, I'm going to gut you like, like a branch-horn. I swear it."
With that dire warning, reinforced by a sudden flare of fierce defiance sent straight at him, Foxtail wiggled an arm further out of the fur and lifted her hand to undo the ties keeping the window masked with nimble fingers. The bright moonlight immediately flooded into the cozy den as if just waiting for the chance, casting everything in its path silver. Everything included the chief's daughter herself; she stood uncomfortably straight, still mostly shrouded in her sleeping fur. Her expression remained a bit shadowed but the light now bounced cheerfully off her thick fiery curls... Which appeared to be far, far shorter than he remembered. **Please.** The single-word sending might as well have said nothing for all that it hinted at everything.
A dozen different reactions raced through Notch's mind in that moment. His first instinct, to ask what had happened, was immediately shot down in light of Foxtail's still, straight, defiant posture and the faint hint of... fear? No, it wasn't quite fear, it was too fragile. Maybe that was it: a fragility he'd never seen in her before.
"Why would I laugh, sweetling?" Notch kept his voice soft and soothing, slowly moving toward her with one hand out as if approaching a wounded wolf pup. He touched her mind with feelings of warm reassurance as he reached her and gently brushed his fingers against the fur wrapped around her shoulders. **I would never do that to you, my little Fox-kitten,** he smiled, letting his hand slip up to touch her cheek, even as his eyes flickered over her shorn locks, disheveled as if she'd just awakened.
"Because you're Notch." Despite how the words sounded, Foxtail relaxed into his touch, her shoulders dropping out of their locked position and her eyes closing. She turned her face into him and a small, newborn smile grew as she managed to brush her lips fleetingly against the palm of his hand. "Because you live for this sort of mash. It's fodder." Another barely-there touch of lips to his palm accompanied her words, though, and he could read her uneasy willingness to allow him the chance to prove her wrong. Again he was struck by the change the shunning had created in her; she had always been greedy for attention but now it was tinged with a worrisome desperation. The touch reassured her, however, and her shoulders eased even further in their tension. She reopened her eyes just barely and turned her face again to regard him from beneath her thick lashes, her look grass-green and calculating now. Then she pushed her face into his hand again for another needy nuzzle, twisting so his fingers slid further back along her jaw, brushing her earlobe. **Aren't you going to ask?** she sent in a fair imitation of her best-known tones of defiance.
Notch allowed Foxtail's momentum to carry his hand past her ear and into the soft, red mass of her hair, his fingers gently tangling in the silken curls. **Eventually.** And in truth he was desperately curious. But the warmth of her scent and her breath on his palm and her body so close to his dragged him back to the now, to her here with him. **I missed you.** The aching loneliness he felt wove into that simple statement, and he closed the space between them, bringing his other hand up to cup her face.
A sigh escaped Foxtail unconsciously as she held still for his gentle explorations. The very fact that he missed her, just her, and the accompanying emotions in his sendings brought more of a smile to her lips. With one hand still holding her fur to her, she lifted the other to wrap her fingers around one of his wrists. Her thumb massaged the sensitive skin over his pulse in slow circles but her eyes never left his. **I missed you,** she responded and, with his open admission, her own emotions bled out into his mind. His reaction seemed to cure her of reticence and broke through whatever wall she had built since the times before. It slid over him with a warmth that penetrated and tangled and claimed as if she were not about to let him leave again until the loneliness was gone. **Missed you so much.**
With a soft sigh of his own, Notch slipped his arms around her and drew her against him. He buried his face in her shorn crimson ringlets, opening himself up to bare the rage and frustration and humiliation of the past moon to her, raw and bleeding. "Foxtail." He whispered her name into her hair, brushing his cheek against her ear. "You're all I have left. Wil's got my sister, and her duties as healer keep her as caged as we are. Rainpace..." A flash of betrayal, white-hot and sharp, said more about his heart-brother than words could. **It's all different now. You're the only one who understands. Only one who ever really understood me.**
She shivered at the intensity but brought her own arms up, nonetheless, to wrap around his neck. There was very little tenderness to the desperately returned hug but neither seemed to notice in the unusually raw flurry of emotions. Control slipped further and Foxtail tangled her fingers in his mink-dark hair, little claiming tugs and pulls as if to ground them in the Now through sensation. The fur shifted at her shoulders with the removal of her controlling hand, submitting to gravity and sliding groundwards only to be stopped by his arms around her. **And you're the only one who understands me, too,** she returned in a fierce burst that showed her own impatience and ache to him. **Wonderful, clever Notch. Everyone else, they just think I'm useless. I'm not useless. You believe in me, don't you, Notch?**
**Of course I do, dear kitling.** Notch let her fierce sending wash over him and merge with his own frustrations, a whirlpool of anger feeding on itself. **They think they've broken us. That's what Windburn meant to do — break us, shame us into slinking around with our tails tucked and showing throat to the whole tribe. Not this wolf's son.** He nuzzled further into her hair until he found her neck, teasing the tender skin there with his teeth. **I'll show him my throat because he is chief, but that's it. And it'll stick in my craw to do that.**
He pulled back then, momentarily releasing her to rest his forehead against hers as the sleepfur fell the rest of the way to the floor of the den. **Now you,** he sent, warm and supportive, sliding his arms around her again. **When you are Chieftess Foxtail, you I will bare my throat to gladly.** A slight shift of position, the smallest turn of his head, exposed his throat at her eye-level, his pulse thrumming visibly beneath his skin from the heat of his fury and longing.
Foxtail needed no further encouragement. One of her hands left his hair as the other tangled more firmly in a clear, silent demand for him to keep his head turned. Then, teasingly, she dragged the fingers of her free hand over his vulnerable throat, short nails scratching soft enough to avoid leaving a mark. **I'd never tear it out,** she promised in softer tones. **I'd know better than to waste a good, talented elf like you.** She pressed in further until his skin twitched beneath the moist, warm puff of her breath. **Any half-wit cub knows better, knows you're the cleverest and sneakiest.**
Her thumb pressed against his pulse for an instant, dragged in a circle, and moved away so she could grip his shoulder firmly. "I'm not broken," she whispered, a strange sudden withdrawal from the intimacy of sending. "Won't be broken."
Whatever else she might have thought to say aloud, though, she bit back and promptly buried against his neck. Her lips were soft at first but then she parted and her teeth worried his tanned skin. The gentle nips increased within moments and soon she was biting him in earnest, sure to leave faint bruises. **But he's made me do something awful and I threw it downstream** echoed in his head with a soft, frustrated wail of emotion. The truth in the sending was bare and pained, the fragility he sensed before all too clearly picked out in that instant despite her distracting mouth as his throat.
So that was it! Notch quickly put two and two together, even as he sighed beneath her mouth on his skin. It clearly must have been deeply traumatic for her — he thought nothing of chopping his shaggy brown hair off as the mood took him, so it wasn't any big thing for him. But Foxtail had never cut her hair in her entire life, the ends of her long curls, the flame-red locks she was born with, fading to a pale ginger-gold over the years as if to match her name. She must have cut them off during a fit of anger, after something happened to them during one of her punishment chores. No wonder she now blamed her father. Her hair was her pride. And now that pride was wounded, ravaged, leaving her broken and vulnerable despite her brave stance.
Gently, Notch slipped both hands up to tangle his fingers in Foxtail's thick hair. **Oh, sweetling,** he whispered into her mind. **Precious, darling, beautiful Fox-kitten. You are still beautiful, you know.** He cradled her head in his hands, holding her against him as he worked his fingertips through the red ringlets and against her scalp. **In fact, I think you're even more beautiful now. Look, it's so much easier for me to play with. And I won't get tangled up in it and pull on it anymore in the furs.** This last he sent with a clear, warm pulse of longing and desire.
That startled a surprised laugh from the back of her throat, and she paused in her attentions to his neck. The giggle tickled almost as much as the flicker of surprise shared to his mind. Then the moment passed and Foxtail eased her hold on his hair, drawing both hands away even as her tongue flicked out to soothe the abuse she had committed to his throat. She tasted the salt of his skin for a few moments then withdrew completely, though she was careful to avoid dislodging his hold on her curls. She studied him thoughtfully for a few stuttering heartbeats and then, exactly as he had planned, she smiled for him. Foxtail's smile lit her face, green eyes taking on a glow as she looked into his face. **Oh, Notch. My clever wolf's heart.** Her expression only intensified the depth of feeling in the words — relief and gratitude and needful adoration. Distraction achieved. **But we won't have the extra warmth of it now. We'll have to get closer.**
Notch returned her radiant smile with one of his own, though the gleam in his smoke-green eyes was more like that of a tree-cat that had its prey right where it wanted it. **Yes,** he replied, enveloping her with feelings of want you need you as warm and sweet and thick as honey flowing in the summer heat. Keeping one hand tangled in her hair, he freed the other to run languidly over her shoulder and down her side to her waist. He pulled her close against his body, closing his eyes and nuzzling her temple as he inhaled deeply of her scent. **Oh yes,** he repeated. **Much, much closer.**
The last reserve in her posture melted under the combined power of his touch and mind and Foxtail gave a happy little purr, allowing him to hold her as close as he liked. She drew her own deep breath of him, the musky-heated scent of him filling her nose and lungs until she felt light-headed. **As close as bark and tree,** she suggested, her eager smile now hidden against his shoulder. Then she slipped her arms around his waist and, as her fingers began an expert tease up and down his backbone, she pushed forward her own pressing need until he could feel the hungry, reclaiming desire all the way to his fingertips.
**Closer even than that.** Allowing himself a soft moan of contentment, Notch again buried his face in her soft red curls and smiled. Any doubt as to whether he truly had an ally in the chief's firstborn drifted away like her shorn locks must have on the river's currents. **So close they can't hurt us ever again. And they've hurt us, haven't they?** Her answer was an indistinct murmur of agreement into his skin, very nearly a whimper despite her attempt at control.
He pulled back, moving his hand up to join the one still entangled in her hair. **We took our punishment, but we were punished again by not being included in the word-hunt.** His eyes flashed. **Foolish Windburn let his anger cloud his judgment. Who better to spy on the five-fingers than the one who danced unseen right under their noses? If anyone deserves to be in that party, I do!** The fury in his outburst passed, and Notch once more smiled at Foxtail. **My beautiful, clever Fox-kitten,** he purred. **We must think of a way to show him his mistake. Show them all.** His smile took on the wicked tilt he was known for. **And not by pulling some epic prank. Not this time. I don't want revenge. I want justice.**
**I want...** She paused in the middle of her sending, the edges ragged and bright with hurt pride again. She pulled her hands away from his back and slid them, palm-flat, up his chest until her fingers curved just over his shoulder. The smile she gave him now was faint but her eyes shown, glinting dangerous in the dimness. Her nails pressed into his shoulders briefly. **I want what's mine,** she finished firmly. **All of it. The word-hunt should have been ours, too. Rainpace,** the ache tasting of betrayal returned hot and painful, **and Beetle! We should be there, too. I'm going to be chief some day, aren't I? I need to know the five-fingers better than anyone.**
**Yes, you do, and yes, you will be chief.** 'If I have any say in the matter', Notch kept to himself, his mind already working. **What we need to do, sweetling, is prove to Windburn that we are better suited for the word-hunt than the others, that they would be of more use here in the Holt than out spying on the five-fingers. Hmmm...** He frowned and chewed his lip. **We also need to prove to him that we can be relied upon. We need to show him that his trust in us would not be misplaced. That we've learned our lesson,** he smirked. **What that means, my darling girl, is we will have to be the best, most productive and cooperative elves in the entire Holt. We have to outshine everyone. And, most importantly, we have to stay out of trouble.** Notch's smirk widened, and he gave a small, wicked chuckle. **In truth, this will be the best game we've ever played.**
Something solemn had appeared in the depths of her eyes as he laid out his growing plan, and Foxtail greeted his amusement with a thoughtful silence that lasted for a handful of endless heartbeats. Perhaps it was the required discipline implied that made her quiet but, finally, Foxtail nodded. More than her hair had apparently changed since he had last seen her, and a moment of uncertainty hung between them before she suddenly laughed and shook her head. **Yes,** came the proud response, washing over him with renewed excitement, the mysterious hesitation lost in the burst. **Yes, it will, Notch, and harder than any other one. Father believes I'm about as stupid as a day-old pup and you... I'm sure you don't want to know what he thinks of you. It'll be the most important game ever and I refuse to lose it.** She slipped her hands behind his neck again to lace together and keep his body firmly against hers. Tilting her head forward until first foreheads, then noses, then finally lips touched, she closed her eyes. The contact was barely there, almost more of a teasing promise. **So you have to mean it, Notch. Go with me all the way or...** A shiver of the loneliness touched the sending again, barely noticeable against the fierce determination. A sudden sharp nip to his lower lip further distracted from the moment of weakness and he met her now-open, grass-green eyes. **Or don't come near me at all, my wolf's heart.**
Notch smiled back at her, feral and heated from her nip. **I will be at your side the entire way, sweetling. And we have all the time in the world to plan it out now, while we're confined to the Dentrees. For now, though...** A wave of desire followed his sending, washing over Foxtail with impressions of want you need you NOW. **For now, we have us to think about.** The loneliness welled up in him again, too, this time enhancing the want he felt, and he squeezed his arms around her, drawing her tightly to him. **Now,** he sent again, more the feeling than the word.
Eyes sliding shut against the power in his send, Foxtail allowed a smile to creep over her lips. Her body went pliant and willing against his and, with a soft noise to show her appreciation, she unlaced her fingers from behind his neck, weaving them expertly into his shaggy hair. The moment was once more as familiar as breathing. **Now,** she echoed him and the stern rigidity was gone from her, replaced with an aching need to match his. She angled her face to nuzzle his cheek expertly with her own. Then she dropped a bit and he felt the teasing, quick brush of her hot tongue along the underside of his jaw. **Missed you so very much.**
Closing his own eyes, Notch tilted his head back and gave a soft sigh. **Missed you too.** Even though neither of them was the least bit interested in anything like lovemating, Foxtail truly was his best match, his favorite furmate, his partner and ally. She was the only one who understood him, the one who not only held her own against him, but often gave as good as she got. And even though it had only been two hands of days, he had missed her, terribly. The relief he finally allowed himself to feel, that she hadn't been angry with him, was genuine.
Notch looked down at her and slid his hands up under the too-large tunic she wore, her skin warm and inviting beneath his fingers. Furs want now was the only thing he sent, the time for words long past. He didn't need words any longer, not now at least. He'd gotten what he wanted with them.
Without any hesitation, Foxtail leaned into his touch until their bodies pressed together in a warm, solid line and her hands roamed over his broad shoulders idly. She leaned in once more to taste the line of his jaw before easing down his neck to tease at his pulse-point with strong, sharp teeth. Then she drew back again to study his face, body shifting away minutely, while her hands squirmed between the newly reintroduced few inches of personal space. Judging by the heavy-lidded look she gave him, even sending had become redundant and her fingers searching out the fastenings on his belt-pouch drove the thought home with a demanding bang.
Foxtail stepped away further after a few delicate moments, and her smile glowed with gloating pride now. His belt-pouch dangled from her hand, prize won. A flick of her wrist sent it off into one corner of the dimly-lit den to land, unseen, with a faint thump. Sinking down in the next instant to curl atop the discarded fur, she held out the now empty hand in offer. Everything was clearly forgiven, forgotten, and irrelevant; now was what mattered and then would be dealt with once the immediate hunger had been fed. Words or sendings or plots -- whatever it had been, Notch clearly had won his impulsive, fiery little prize back into his arms.
And he knew it.
With a sly, triumphant smirk, Notch took her hand and joined her on the fur. He didn't give her the chance to notice his expression, though, as he immediately leaned in to nuzzle her neck, nipping the tender flesh behind her ear. Bringing his other hand up to tangle in her shorn curls, he smiled as he worked his fingers through the silken mass. He really did like this change, he decided, despite how traumatic it had been for Foxtail. The fact that he could use it to his advantage — and had, his reassurances to her vanity binding her even closer to him — was a nice bonus.
He inhaled deeply of her scent, his breath warm against her skin, and lost himself in the now, in her. At the heart of it, he was very very glad to have her back.