(This story begins directly after "Fight or Flight, Pt. 2", and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories..)
Though normally not one to listen in on others' conversations, Beetle couldn't help but overhear her brother and his friends talking. She figured they had to know she was nearby; she made no effort to hide herself.
'If it were a private conversation, they would locksend, or look for somewhere away from the holt,' she reasoned, and listened in again.
"She's changed!” Notch said. He sounded angry. “And it's not for the better. What good is a healer if she won't come near any of us – or if we're not even allowed to go near her?"
Foxtail was quick to answer. "And if she does come near us, she won't touch any of us. When was the last time either of you rolled in the furs with her?"
Notch laughed sarcastically, and Beetle heard more than anger in his next words. There was hurt there. "Oh, let's not even talk about that. You know the last time I tried, I got tossed out on my rump in the cold and Windburn was breathing down the back of my neck not two blinks of an eye later. For what? For trying to help Willow! Well, if that's her kind of gratitude, then she's getting no help from me!”
“I don't think we should try and surprise her any more,” Rainpace quietly added. "Willow will come to us when she's ready. There's really no point in getting angry about things. And in the meantime, I don't think she'd want us to pass up having some fun while we wait for her..."
“Let her make the next move then,” Foxtail said, sounding hurt. “It's not like we haven't tried to help her again and again.”
“Hrrmph. As if she would come to us,” Notch grumbled. “And I wouldn't look her way if she stumbled over us right here and now.”
Beetle forgot her work as she walked away from the threesome and headed further into the forest. She had noticed that Willow was not her usual self – most, if not all of the tribe had - but she had not pried. The two had shared furs once or twice long ago, but they were not particularly close friends. Beetle, therefore, wasn't affected by Willow's current situation in the same way her brother was.
Something in that overheard conversation stuck out to her, though, and she couldn't shake the thought. 'Willow hasn't willingly touched anyone in the tribe.' She wasn't certain why she was generalizing Foxtail's statement to the whole tribe, but something about it made sense. She continued mulling it over.
Without realizing it, Beetle had begun wandering away from the holt, thinking. 'Healers have to touch others to heal. But what is it like for them? And what's it like when it's new?' She remembered Evervale's discovery that she could shape trees, and how Evervale's hand had been one with the tree... 'Could Willow be experiencing something like that?' she wondered. 'Does she, in some way, become one with the one she's touching? Or does she feel the pain?’
The thoughts continued as she walked a familiar path, and Beetle found herself believing that at least some part of her theory had to be right. Still, she wouldn't share it with others, and she didn't expect herself to be talking with Willow any time soon, given that Windburn had told everyone to stop pressing and to leave Willow alone to sort things out herself. Beetle vowed that if she ever did get the chance to talk with Willow, she wouldn't push her to talk about it.... But -- if given the opportunity -- Beetle would ask, because she was growing more curious with each step.
She didn't realize she would get that opportunity sooner than she expected. The crunch of light feet breaking the crust on top of the snow snapped Beetle from her thoughts and drew her attention ahead.
Willow stood not twelve paces away, clutching two fresh-killed rabbits by the ears. She looked just as startled as Beetle felt, and for the longest time, both females stood, staring at each other. For a moment, Beetle thought Willow might bolt, just as the rabbits she held might have done to avoid their current fate.
But, to her surprise, Willow stayed put and broke the uncomfortable silence. She let out a strained laugh. "Beetle..." the new healer called out, “...you scared me. I, uh.... I wasn't expecting anyone to be out this far.”
Beetle couldn't contain the surprise that flooded her face. She couldn't recall the last time the two of them had spoken, and based on what Notch and the others had said, she wasn't sure of the last time Willow had willingly greeted another. However, she wasn't going to let this opportunity pass.
Beetle smiled at Willow, then responded, "Hello!" She wasn't sure what to say next.
Willow took another step closer – but not too close. "Why are you so far out?" Was that a suspicious tone in her voice?
Beetle glanced at the ground. She didn't want to admit why she had wandered so far away, but there was something about that tone that made Beetle feel the need to defend herself. "Because I was thinking, and I like to walk when I think, and I don't always notice how far my feet take me."
There was a pause, and then Willow nodded. “I do that, too.”
Beetle smiled, then glanced at the rabbits in Willow's hand. “Looks like you had some luck with the traps.”
“Yes,” Willow responded, looking down at her catch. “I should get them back to the holt and take care of them."
Beetle nodded. Normally, she would have said her farewell and gone her own way again, but her curiosity was keeping her rooted to the spot. She wanted to say something to Willow, wanted to ask her about what she'd been thinking about earlier, but she couldn't think of the proper way to ask without going against what Windburn had told them not to do.
Willow started shifting her weight nervously from foot to foot and started to look more and more uncomfortable by the moment. Finally, she blurted, "What's going through your head?”
The defensive tone in Willow's voice told Beetle more than Willow realized. Tact not being her strong point, Beetle blundered ahead, but chose to use sending, rather than speaking. This way, any eavesdroppers that could be around would not be part of the conversation, and also because Beetle wanted Willow to know her sentiment.
**I know you're going through a hard time,” she began. **I don't know what it's like to have any magical power, but to come into it can't be easy. And something like healing… well, maybe it’s harder than people realize. Maybe you feel their pain, or…I just wanted to let you know that I've been thinking about it some... and if you need someone to help you figure something out... I like to think that I'm good at figuring things out--if nothing else, I'm persistent, and patient. I don't want to push when you don't want help, but if you need it, I'd like to help in whatever way I can.**
Along with the stream of thoughts, Beetle sent feelings of acceptance and warmth, and of patience. She let Willow know that she was not trying to push or pry, but that she had been thinking what had possibly been happening, and about how much sense it would make if she was right. She let Willow know that she would be a little scared, too... and shared the uncertainties that she came up with when trying to put herself in the healer's position.
Willow took a step back. "I don't know." She didn't send in return, and Beetle didn't ask why, even though she wondered what Willow was trying to hide. She wished the new healer wouldn't be so afraid to share what she was feeling. "I'm not even sure where to begin."
**I'm sorry. I shouldn't even have asked, I know. Windburn told us to leave you alone.**
“I don't mind that you asked,” Willow responded stubbornly. “I know everyone has meant well and that I've pushed everyone away. And...maybe it's time for me to stop being such a rabbit.”
Beetle decided not to press the issue at the moment, and she knew that Willow had heard her offer. She guessed that the healer needed some time to think about it. She continued sending. **Just think about it. I wouldn't press you, and you wouldn't have to try anything until you are ready. I'll be around when you are!** Beetle smiled at Willow, knowing that her hope of being helpful had come through in the sending. She had also included an offer of friendship to Willow, letting her know that the friendship was not dependent on the offer. She genuinely cared, and wanted to be there.
Willow nodded. “Thank you. I need a little time. But I appreciate the offer.” She glanced up at the moons and spoke again. "I should be getting back.” Then, she paused, considering. “Did you want to come with me? I think I'd like the company."
Beetle nodded her acceptance; no words were needed. The pair walked silently back to the Holt.