(This story is part of the ”Conflict between Windburn and Foxtail; and Foxtail & Notch’s Cunning Plan” storyline – see listing for more stories.)
Whistling softly to himself, Pathmark adjusted the weight of his catches against his back as he ducked beneath the overhang which marked the particular turn into the storage dens. It had been a productive night and he had more than enough fresh meat in his grasp to share with some of his tribemates, not to mention a few fresh pelts for curing and tanning. If he could just find one of the elders, he could contribute the excess for storing or sharing and then take his own personal rabbits back to the den made cozy by his lovemates. He felt the heavy buckskin pouch at his hip shift as he hopped down a stair and he remembered the collection of nuts there. Another thing to hand over to the storage dens, he thought. It really had been a wonderfully productive night and, with the rare instance of all three being Holt-side at once, it could only improve. Duties made for a busy, occupied mind and time went fast but, as soon as he had seen Evervale and Longshot back in the den, the emptiness reopened and it had taken all of his dedication to carry out his night’s chores.
The indistinct outline of a hunched shadow against the far wall drew his attention from those thoughts and he smiled with pleasure. Easier and easier! Someone was already in the storage dens, probably Windburn performing one of his periodic inventories. He wouldn’t have to search all over the Holt for someone to take charge of his finds, after all.
When a sweet, lilting voice rose suddenly in soft song, though, Pathmark froze and sniffed the air. A more feminine, familiar scent cleared the confusion. Foxtail? In the storage dens? He caught himself blinking in disbelief and chastised himself for the instinctive reaction, created by years of associating her with everything except responsibility. It was unfair of him to have even thought that for a moment of anyone, he reminded himself. Especially of one of his sister’s closest friends, a friend who had supported Willow and stayed at her side before and after the punishment that followed Brightwood’s unwrapping. He suppressed a shiver at the memory. Willow still refused to speak directly of the shared sending or the long silent days that followed it but he had seen Foxtail, knowing intimately now what so many of the tribe knew, offer her shoulder and strength to his sister for long moons afterwards. That meant something more than any prank. Foxtail had a good heart within her and spirit, too, things that had often made him smile in the past as well. The smile that appeared now came naturally at such memories as he walked further into the den.
He watched her head turn ever so slightly at his approach but her song never wavered until he stood within the den, just behind her shoulder. Then, finally, Foxtail set down brush and hide and spun on the balls of her feet to smile prettily at him. “Had a good night, did you?” she teased. Nodding at his brace of rabbits, she continued lightly before he could answer, “Very, I’d say. Those are some fat tidbits.” She stood and moved closer to inspect the animals but very carefully made not move to touch them. “And so clean. Did you use traps?” She angled a curious glance up at him through lowered dark lashes.
Pathmark found himself nodding in response, gratified at the attention and respect for his craft. He almost forgot that Foxtail was close to Rainpace; of course, she would recognize tidy trapping. With a warm smile, he allowed the brace of rabbits to drop from his shoulder, using the rope to then lift them up for better viewing, his free hand moving to catch at the knots just at the joining of lines. “Uh huh. Nothing too fancy, though,” he answered. “Just a simple snare that got very lucky.” Encouraged by the surprising way her green eyes fixed on first the cords and then his face, he made a vague motion towards a shaped ledge. He would be willing to show her if she wanted. She nodded and moved ahead of him, even taking a moment to shift a basket out of his way. The tracker again felt his eyebrows lift in reaction to Foxtail’s willing acquiescence before he could again scold himself for it.
She seemed to have noticed anyway, though, and the chief’s daughter giggled before dropping herself to the ledge in a graceful sprawl. She patted the spot beside her. “Come on. Tell me about it,” she urged. “I’ve been down here for, well... Have the moons set yet?” At his negative head shake, she gave a dramatic sigh. “Not quite that long then,” she admitted, “but long enough.” A wave of her hand indicated the abandoned stretch of hide and Pathmark turned to look. If he was any judge, she had filled a solid third of it with her notations; there was definitely a difference between her brushwork and what he could only assume was her father’s. A certain flashy boldness showed through her notations. Windburn’s sat steady and careful on the hide.
Her hand on his drew his attention back to her. “Do you have any idea how much stuff is down here?” she asked. “I swear, it’s enough to feed three tribes. Well, if you don’t mind keeping from stuffing yourself. Which some people have trouble with, I suppose.” Foxtail laced her fingers in his and Pathmark dropped his eyes to gauge what appeared to be an absent, automatic gesture. Then he focused once more on her amused face. “It’s not even the long cold yet and we’re already almost full up. It’s good.” She shot him a sideways glance and wrinkled her nose, green eyes bright and mischievous. “But it’s a lot to do and here you are, bringing more!”
Pathmark laughed and ducked his head. “Well, I...” He started as her other hand slipped against the pouch tied at his waist. “Hey, there! Watch the hands.” Grinning, he made a show of squirming out of her reach. Unfortunately, she tightened her hold on his captured hand, fingers tangled, and kept him in place with surprising strength. “What are you..?”
Suddenly, Foxtail giggled and released him. Both her hands dropped to undo the pouch with nimble fingers yet she kept her eyes on his confused face. “Getting the rest,” she replied cheerfully. Her fingers brushed against his side as she moved the pouch away and held it up with a triumphant shake. “You were walking crooked when you came in,” she explained, “and it wasn’t the rabbits. Nuts?” She tilted her head and regarded him, keeping the pouch just out of reach if he decided to try and retrieve it. “Personal treats or tribe treats?” she asked and he could read the honest curiosity on her face.
The fact that she was asking made him smile and he considered the distance of the pouch and their relative speeds. It was quite a grown-up question, to think that there was reason beyond personal gratification. Ever so carefully, he edged closer to her and ducked to lean his head on her slim, strong shoulder. He gave her his best cub-face, angled low and hopeful. Instead of caving, she moved the pouch further away. “Don’t give me that look, Pathmark.” Shifting, she dropped her cheek against the soft buckskin of his hat and nuzzled. “I was born with that look,” she whispered. “Some day, maybe I’ll show you how it’s really done. Maybe not, though. I don’t want you using it on my dear cousin.” Her head shifted to rest heavier against his. “Though I don’t know if he’d even notice, really.”
Out the corner of his eye, Pathmark watched her eyes drift shut and he listened for a moment to the slowing of her breath. She really must have been at work for a while, he thought, to so easily fall asleep against him. He could not remember a time she sat so quiet and close to him. Foxtail always existed in a whirl of noise and flash in his mind. Even when they shared a hunt together - and she was a very fine hunter - she still vibrated with barely contained energy as if it took everything within her to wait for the prey’s appearance. Thinking on it, it reminded him of Longshot and he smiled again. Turning slightly, he returned the earlier nuzzle to her soft, red curls. Then his hand began the careful creep towards retrieving his pouch.
Only to find the warmth at his side suddenly gone and Foxtail standing before him with the most wicked of grins. “You didn’t answer the question.”
Pathmark looked up from his sprawl on the ledge and huffed in mock-annoyance. “I was bringing it here,” he admitted. “I found a cache of nuts and thought I might as well bring them back.” He raised himself up on one elbow and awkwardly shifted the weight of the rabbits away from his body. “So I guess you might as well keep them.” He grinned. **Add them to your tally, Foxtail. Then you’ll be done.**
**I’ll add you,** she shot back, all aggressive laughter and tease. Pathmark considered her slim form with a faint smile. He felt no immediate temptation but knew her well enough that pleasant memories could warm him. She did seem different, though, even if the taunt was pure Chief’s Daughter. She noticed his thoughtful look and smirked knowingly, adding **except I reckon someone else has been missing you more so...** The redhead shifted her weight back a step and held out her other hand in offering. “If you want to hand over the extras there, I’ll skin them and have them wrapped,” she said out loud. “It’ll give me something new to do and let you get back to your den.”
He hesitated, looking first at her and then at the rabbits. He sat up properly and hefted his catches higher in the air to consider them better. “Of course,” he answered. “Sorry. I guess I’m more tired than I thought. I just...” He trailed off and his attention shifted back to Foxtail who watched him with a strange, thoughtful expression. Standing, he neatly unhooked two rabbits and held the rest out to her. “Thank you.”
Foxtail took the remaining catches from him with a sudden smile. “No, Pathmark. Thank you.” When he blinked, she giggled. “It was nice to have a break from this sorting. Even if you brought more work with you.” She gave the pouch of nuts a little shake to emphasize her point and he found himself laughing along with her. “I’ll bring this back to you later. Promise.”
“Oh, you don’t have to...”
“Promise? Of course I do.” Foxtail winked. “It’s a beautiful bag. Can’t have me losing it to someone in a game of dice, now, can we?” She indicated the door with her chin and took another step backwards. “You look done in, Pathmark. Go snuggle down and don’t worry about a thing. I’ll take care of it all.”
“But...” Pathmark trailed off, stopping himself from vocalizing any doubts. It was strange to see Foxtail so helpful. She was herself but there was something else, almost as if she finally had her ears all the way open or she had taken it into her head to try on her father’s boots for the day. The more he thought about it, the more he found himself torn between concern and pleasure. If the wild redhead wanted to try more things and if they would make her happy, then he was happy. As if to help deny the momentary hesitation, he grinned brightly and crossed to settle one of his hands at her shoulder. He squeezed before leaning in to rub his cheek against hers. “Thank you, Foxtail,” he whispered. “I really appreciate it. You’re sweet.”
“Mmhm.” She returned the affection readily. Then she stepped away, disengaging his hand gently, and motioned for him to run along, a smile curving her lips. “Go on, Pathmark. I’ll see you later.”
With a faint laugh, he lifted his hand in salute and took himself and his prizes out of the storage den. As he entered the hallway, he heard her soft singing begin once more. Well, Pathmark thought, a warm glow starting at the thought of returning to his den so easily, buoyed up by Foxtail’s surprising cooperation and sweet tune, that was a very nice way to end a long night. Heart and hands lighter, he began whistling. What a successful night, indeed.