(This story is a sequel to ”An Extra Pair of Hands”, and is part of the ”Conflict between Windburn and Foxtail; and Foxtail & Notch’s Cunning Plan” storyline – see listing for more stories.)
It was working! It was honestly, seriously, truly working! The flush of success from the recent conversation had her warm all over, her smile threatening to split her face as she clambered nimbly up the Father Tree towards Notch's den. She knew she had to hurry; if anyone saw her bubbling with this kind of excitement, suspicions would explode all over the Holt. She couldn’t help it, though. It had gone so well and she felt wonderful. Productive and clever and talented again. She had been missing that certainty badly. No matter how much Notch reassured her (and he was very good at delivering the attention she desired), something felt wrong. This was exactly how such schemes thrilled her before the tragedy of the storm five moons ago, though. The abrupt reminder acted like a quill to an inflated bladder and she felt her smile falter as her new Now touched her mind again. Try as she could to avoid it, the memory of her mother’s words lingered and lent new shadows to formerly simple pleasures.
Foxtail paused on the ledge outside her accomplice's den and pressed one palm against the rough bark, leaning into it as she stared unseeingly at the worn flap which separated her from the well-deserved praise. For a moment, she worried her lip with strong teeth, seeing Pathmark's smiling-sweet face in her mind once more. Just one step and one acceptance, she thought. So many more to go and she was sure not all would be as ready to believe in her as he was. But, on the other hand... She smiled again, more gentle and pleased. On the other hand, she knew his compliments and response held only honesty. The excitement flared once more, remembering his response and her success. Her ego preened at the thought and demanded more.
Reaching forward, she scratched her fingers over the flap even as her mind reached out to his with a send composed of the joy and satisfaction that warmed her stomach. **Notch,** she practically cooed. **I've got something nice for you. Let me in.**
**You always have something nice for me, sweetling,** came the response, a somewhat amused undertone in the sending. A rustling from inside the den was followed by the faint scratching of ties being unfastened on the doorflap, then an arm snaked out to hold the leather aside for her. Notch smiled at Foxtail as he peered at her from inside, his eyes almost glowing from the reflected light. **Though from the sound of things it's even nicer than usual this time.**
**Mmm, always. Don't I always share so nicely with you?** The lock-send flickered with humor and pride, traces of warmth at his own response beneath everything. His reaction soothed the slight uncertainty created in the gap between con and reward. Strangely grateful inside, she reached out a hand, fingers stretched forward, and gently pushed him further into the den before following him inside. She let the flap drop behind them and everything went dim and shadowy once more. "Can we get a bit of light?" she asked suddenly. "I want to see your face properly." It would be distraction, a new focus, she thought.
Notch quirked an eyebrow and studied her for a moment, the smile never leaving his face. "As you wish, darling girl." He went to the lone small window hole, shaped high on the wall near the interior openings between his den and the others, and untied the flap covering it. The early morning sunlight streamed in, dappled and green-tinted from the leaves of the Father Tree. "There," he said, stepping into the light with his hands spread. **Now, my fox-kitling, what's this nice thing you have for me?**
Lacing her hands behind her, the redhead smiled oh-so-innocently and rocked a bit onto the balls of her feet. Her eyes sparkled in the new sunlight, mischief bubbling over, and any previous worry faded completely in the face of his interested look. **It's working, Notch!** she finally blurted out. **It's really, really working. I was just with Pathmark and...** Giggling out loud, she untangled her hands and threw them up in the air as if to demonstrate how well it went.
It took a moment for Notch to figure out what she was talking about. Ah, the game! Our little game. His smile became a smug grin. **I knew it would,** he sent, **or I wouldn't have suggested it. And you, my dear Foxtail...** He crossed his den and gave her a hug. "I knew you could do it," he said aloud, keeping his voice soft and low in case anyone else was within earshot. Pulling back, he switched to sending again. **See, it wasn't so hard, was it? Tell me what happened.**
"I'll do better than that." The grin curving Foxtail's lips held the flavor of promise and she stepped back into Notch's personal space. His warmth mixed with hers and, relishing the Now unmarred by her earlier concerns, she allowed her body to lean into his. Whatever she had almost caught before was gone now; Notch radiated pride and amusement well enough to allow her to forget it all in the flush of success. Without another word, the redhead allowed her eyes to slide shut and linked her mind to his in careful synchronicity. Images appeared in smooth succession, a kaleidoscope of her encounter with Pathmark filtered through the gleam of Foxtail's mind. The sunny expression on the tracker's face, fat rabbits, a game of keep-away with a pouch of nuts opened up for him. She layered emotion over the pictures to expand the story - perceived acceptance from Pathmark combined with attention and warmth, glee and smug satisfaction from her.
Then she allowed her mind to recede and sighed contentedly, blindly shifting to rest her cheek against the line of his jaw. "Better?" she whispered and her breath stirred his dark hair.
"Much better." Foxtail could feel Notch's smirk widen against her cheek as he wrapped his arms around her and gave her a pleased hug. **Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Better than perfect.** He released her and rested his forehead against hers, his grin wicked and gleaming. **It's almost a certainty that he will mention it to someone. And if Pathmark believes and accepts that you have changed, others will too. He's so sweet and honest - who would doubt him?** he sent, chuckling aloud softly. **You were magnificent, sweetling. Just as I knew you would be.**
Warmth bubbled low in her stomach, pleasure at his response, and she closed her eyes with a barely audible sigh of contentment. **It got a little complicated here and there,** she admitted after a moment's hesitation. **I had been in the storage dens and really was starting to go howling. I scented him and just wanted to...** She giggled and shared a quick image of her hands grabbing at Pathmark's tunic and tumbling him into the cozy dens. Then she opened one eye to gauge Notch's reaction, hiding her smile a bit from him. "Just for a break, you know?" she purred.
"Oh, I do know," Notch purred back with his own image of tumbling the young tracker into the furs. **And that's fine, perfect even. We don't want anyone to become suspicious.** With a pleased smirk, he pulled her close again. **This new Foxtail must emerge slowly from the old Foxtail - not too slowly, but not too quickly either. The fur of a winter hare doesn't change in a day, or even a hand of days. Let everyone see the truth - that you are slowly changing your ways.** He gave a low snicker. **They don't need to know why.**
**Not that any of them would understand, anyway.** Foxtail shifted to rest her head against his shoulder, leaning into him idly, and one hand toyed with a rough buckskin tassel dangling from his vest. The boredom of the storage dens felt as faded and melted as the last cold's snow. She knew she could trust Notch for distraction and the necessary warmth. **Do you think I really have to do all of this? Just because my father does it doesn't mean I would need to when I'm chief.** She looked up at him from beneath her thick, lowered lashes and again watched for his reaction. **And isn't this really all about joining Beetle and Rainpace stalking the humans? I won't be chief for ages but they're finding the words now.** The idea didn't quite seem right somehow but she dismissed it; Notch would either know what she really meant or it would not matter. She offered him a pout calculated to earn his soothing words and capitulation. She knew him so well, she thought fondly.
Notch gently chucked her under the chin so she would look up at him, and as she has anticipated, his smile was now warm and soothing, full of fond pride. **Of course it’s all about the word-hunt, my sweet,** he sent with the same soothing warmth. **You'll join them - we both will. Once we prove that we've learned our lessons, that is.** He absently fingered a stray red curl, his gaze momentarily hooded and calculating. **Or learned them as far as the rest of the tribe are concerned. Convince them, and your father will really have no choice, will he?** he smirked, his green eyes once more meeting hers.
**You won't have to do this forever, either. Not as well as you're doing.** He gave her a pleased squeeze. **I am so proud of you. You are magnificent, my kitling, very nearly my equal!** Notch's smirk twisted into an almost disdainful sneer. **And if what I hear on the breeze is any indication, the word-hunt will be going on for quite some time.**
That caught her attention and her absent, lazy touches halted, palm to his chest as she looked up at him with expectant eyes. She felt her stomach give a little anticipatory jump and she smiled, oblivious to the darkness in his expression as she processed his words. **That's good... But I don’t want to wait. It'll go faster when you and I are with them.**
**It will, yes. We have to get there first, though.** He smiled down at her. **Only a little while longer, my fox-kitten, I promise. We only have to pretend for a little while longer. We'll have our rightful place in the word-hunt before you know it.** Nuzzling her forehead, Notch stepped back and regarded her. **Now, do you think you can repeat what you did with Pathmark? He was a surprise, but you handled him beautifully. Can you do that with someone else? Can you initiate it? I have every faith that you can,** he sent, placing his hand over hers on his chest, his thoughts wrapping her in warm encouragement. **But do you believe it?**
That gave her pause and Foxtail felt herself blinking at his question. The very concept of doubting her ability rattled strangely in her head. She had never done it before the prank and subsequent punishment. Even in the face of her father’s disapproval or correction from the elders of the tribe, with momentary penance and flash-fire mood swings, her ego remained unbruised in the end. She was fantastic and talented and they simply did not see it. Notch did, but he was unique. He had to be asking to test her determination, she finally decided.
Reaching up to loop her arms around his neck and smiling ear to ear, Foxtail answered him with a slow sharing of confidence, arrogance bleeding through just enough to mask the bubbling excitement and make her seem almost mature in her response. **I don't have to believe,** she added more clearly. **I know I can do it. Any of it. Can you?**
**That's my darling girl.** Notch returned her smile with a wicked grin. **Let's make this even more fun. I'll bet you that I can convince Windburn and the rest of the tribe to let me on the word-hunt first. Winner gets whatever they want from the other, like, hmm... one of Goldspice's sparklies. There's this amber piece I've had my eye on for awhile now. Doesn't matter how the prize is acquired from her, either - winner's choice. Now, we have to keep this fair,** he admonished, a hint of wry amusement dancing around the edges. **No ruining each other's efforts. We're in this game together, and ultimately we'll both win our way in. Just spicing the game up.** He raised an eyebrow and studied her. **So. Are you in, my little fox-kitten?**
Foxtail studied him back with a matching expression, her mind weighing his words thoughtfully. It would certainly keep her attention and interest to have a side bet. Though the word-hunt itself would really be reward enough, it would be nice to earn an extra something from her partner in crime. Drawing her hands away from him, she wriggled out of the close cuddle and took a step back. Her smile reassured him that it was nothing personal. Then she laced her fingers together and lifted her arms to tuck them behind her head. **I suppose,** she sent in a lazy drawl. **If you promise not to sulk too much when I do even better.**
**Only if you promise not to sulk either,** Notch sent back smugly. **Pouting's fine, though. You're so cute when you pout.**
**Oh, am I?** That rang sweet through her and Foxtail dropped her hands only to tangle them in front of her. Dropping her chin, she sniffed delicately, lowered her eyes, and stuck her bottom lip out. "Like this?" she murmured.
She was rewarded with the familiar flare of desire in his expression that indicated she'd hit her mark. "Exactly like that," Notch purred, brushing her lip with one finger as he nuzzled her nose briefly with his. **I'll even give you a head start,** he continued with a smirk. **You are dealing with the master here.**
**Then I'll just have to master you, won't I?** Her light return echoed with amusement and acceptance of his challenge. Loosening her hands, Foxtail reached up to stroke through his dark hair for a moment as she returned the affectionate nuzzle. "Not that I need the chance," she purred, "but it's sweet of you to offer." As she drew back, her smile widened and she allowed her hands to slide away. Then she took another step back, edging closer to the doorway. "Well, I suppose I'll just be going then," she announced sweetly. "The sun's rising and it's about time for all good elves to be snug in their furs."
She paused for long moments. Then, like a flash of skyfire, she laughed and slipped from his den. Her giggles drifted back through the now-closed flap at him, accompanied by a final, vibrant lock-send. **Dream sweetly of what you'll be giving me when I win!**
Notch's amused sending followed her down the Father Tree to her own den. **I'll be dreaming about the sweet prizes awaiting me!** A quick, heated flash sang through her mind, of furs and skin musk and warm bodies. **I'll see you tomorrow, Fox-kitten. Maybe even a little sooner.**