(This story is a sequel to "All by Chance", and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
Willow couldn't sit still. She tried sitting in the midst of her bed furs on her bed platform, but she couldn't get comfortable; she was too nervous. She didn't feel any less nervous when she paced around her den, either.
Nevertheless, she stood up and cracked her back to coax out a knot. Where was Beetle, anyway?
And why, in the name of all that was green and growing, had she ever agreed to this meeting in the first place? Why didn't she go back to the other magic-users and ask for more advice. They were all willing to help since Windburn had lifted his order to leave Willow alone.
Beetle was no magic-user. Yes, her father was a plantshaper, and Willow was sure Beetle had asked him and some of the other magic-users for advice on this situation just as Willow had tried to just a few days before. The questions asked might even have been similar — 'Are there ways to make your powers stop? How long did it take you to get used to them?' Still, the questions she really wanted to ask, such as, 'Do you ever get to the point where it is so overwhelming?' Willow had kept to herself, and figured Beetle wouldn't expect to ask.
All Willow really wanted to do, for now, was to figure out if there were some way she could replicate what had happened at the hot-springs just a few days before. She'd managed to make her powers stop, for lack of a better way to put it, for a few moments. She hadn't, however, been able to do it since. She'd asked friends and family, and had tried a few things with some of them — magic and non-magic users alike — but she couldn't quite make those sensations go away again.
What bothered her most was that she wasn't sure if her continued failure was from a fear that past events would repeat themselves — she'd inadvertently harmed both Evervale and Blacksnake — or from something else. She could probably blame fear — or perhaps guilt — for not returning to Blacksnake, even though he had been the only one on whom she had successfully held back her powers. She couldn't quite bring herself to face him again after what she had done.
As night after night passed, her faith that she could get a handle on her powers at all was fading, and fading fast. She was running out of ideas.
That, she knew, was why she had finally taken Beetle up on her offer to help. In all honesty, Willow found Beetle's interests and way of thinking a bit odd. However, Beetle had also found out combinations of making other things work that other elves would never even have thought of. Maybe asking Beetle for advice would offer some kind of insight that Willow was missing now, despite countless hours of trying to master what she'd had just a taste of before.
But where was Beetle? Willow heaved an impatient sigh and lifted up her den-flap to glance outside. Mother moon was high in the sky. Beetle was supposed to have been here some time ago.
Willow swallowed hard to try and squelch the nervousness she felt rising in her gut. She'd met with others in her den over the past days as she tried to find a solution to her problem, and being in cramped quarters still made her a little afraid she'd have another 'accident.' But there was only one way to conquer a fear, and that was to face it.
There was movement outdoors, finally, and Beetle's scent heralded her arrival.
“Beetle, there you are,” Willow said, stepping away from the den door. “Come in.”
Beetle smiled at Willow. “I’m glad you took me up on the offer to work together! And I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Don't worry about it,” Willow said as her companion entered, although she wasn't quite able to hide her impatient tone.
Willow watched Beetle look around and take in her surroundings. Articles of clothing were strewn on shelves on a wall to the right. The bed was covered in a variety of furs. Honey baskets were piled together on the floor along with more assorted clothing and Willow’s sling and sling pouch. The den was a series of cluttered piles, and Willow liked it that way; she'd offer no apology for the state of her home.
Beetle quickly made herself comfortable, sitting on the floor with her back against Willow’s bed. There was room enough around Beetle that Willow wouldn’t be forced to touch her. That made Willow feel a little less nervous.
The new healer took a deep breath and wrapped her arms around herself as she moved to the opposite side of the room, standing near her piles of clothes and honey-collecting baskets. She thought for a moment, then turned to face Beetle. “So, where do we start?”
Beetle laughed. “You’re anxious to get started — good!” She folded her hands in her lap. “Well, I’ve been talking to a few others, and I have some thoughts, but first let me ask — what is it that you want to figure out, and what do you need right now? What angle should we start from?”
Willow thought for a moment. She wasn't expecting such a direct question, and wasn't sure how to answer. She knew exactly what she wanted, but an angle to start from? If she knew that, she'd probably be able to do this all on her own, and she'd already seen how effective that had been. Right now, it all seemed like one big jumble. Finally, she said, “I just need to be able to make it stop... when I want it to.”
Beetle went wide-eyed, then nodded slowly before she began speaking. “Your healing powers? Oh, Willow….” Willow saw compassion fill Beetle’s eyes, and felt slightly irritated at it. She didn't want to be patronized! Before she could grumble a complaint, however, Beetle added, “Make it stop… do you feel what the other is feeling — like their aches or pains — whenever you touch someone? And have you ever been able to make it stop?”
Willow unconsciously took a step back. This was the second time she'd been taken off guard. She just wasn't expecting anyone to be able to put a finger on what had been bothering her so much over these past few dances of the moons. She couldn't mask the surprise on her face, and then found, again, she wasn't sure how to compose herself afterward. She began to grow somewhat irritated at herself.
How much to tell? She had apologized to the ones she had needed to for hurting them, and she had tried to ask other magic-users for hints about how to accomplish what she needed to. But she'd never gone out and admitted exactly what was wrong. Maybe she'd just figured no one would understand. And she didn't really want anyone else to know that she could potentially hurt them, either.
Her irritation had somehow turned to anxiety, and it made her feel vulnerable again. “It's um, hard to explain,” she half-mumbled, then spoke more loudly as she continued. “But I've made it stop. Once.”
With all the signals Willow was giving, Beetle had to know that the new healer was nervous. Beetle said, “I know it’s hard to talk about all of this, so you don’t have to, but I think it would help.” Continuing, she made an assumption, “Feeling what others feel has to be difficult, and wanting to make it stop, wanting to be able to control it makes perfect sense! That time that you made it stop, what happened? Where were you? Have you tried again with that person?”
At that line of questioning, Willow's heart went up into her throat. The time she had made it stop, aside from the time she had come across her brother bleeding to death in the forest, had been the most frightening time of her life since this ability had awakened inside her. She'd told no one of what had happened there, made no mention that Blacksnake had cornered her out at the hot-springs, and that his sudden advance to try and reason some sense into her head could have led to something completely horrible!
Thatwas something she didn't feel comfortable talking about at all. Willow found herself crossing the den toward the den door, where a chilly night breeze was filtering in, to try and mask the growing fear. She realized that old habits were coming back; she was setting up an escape route for herself now that she wasn't feeling comfortable talking at all.
“Uh...” She tried to decide if there was any way at all she could explain the situation without giving something away she didn't want to. “I— someone touched me and took me by surprise. A-and...” She found her voice shaking, and she closed her eyes for a moment. Images of that past morning at the springs were becoming vivid. She remembered how Blacksnake had twisted his face in pain, how it had taken everything within her being to pull back just for fear she'd hurt him badly or even worse – that she would kill him.
Willow took a deep breath. She would have liked nothing more at the moment than to run away, but she knew if she did, the path to figuring this whole thing out would just become all that much longer.
“I just knew I had to make it stop, so I did.” She couldn't meet Beetle's eyes as she said that, and knew Beetle probably could glean from that alone that she was holding something back.
“Willow…” Beetle started, “I can tell it’s hard to talk about, maybe even hard to think about, so you don’t have to tell me any more. Not unless you want to. I’ll let you decide if, and when, you want to talk about what’s already happened, although I think it could be helpful. But since we’re not talking about then, what if we start over? I know that we can’t change what has already happened, but we can work together from this point forward. Maybe that would be easier for you? I know that it’s hard, and may even scare you… but… I’ll be here for you. What do you think? Want to start fresh?”
Willow sighed and slid down into a small pile of furs on the floor near the den's door. All the frustration she'd been feeling over the past few days rushed to the surface and then spilled over. Her gaze stayed rooted to the floor and any trace of confidence she felt or even tried to project was gone. “I don't know what I want to do. Nothing I've tried has worked yet. I don't know what really happened that made it stop that one time. I just know I have to make this stop when I need it to, or I'll never be able to handle this.”
Beetle watched Willow slump in frustration, thought for a moment, and then blurted out, “You already are trying, Willow. Even just talking to me, you’re making progress. A moon ago, you weren’t talking with anyone. Since then, you’ve made it stop once, and you’ll be able to do it again. I know it. You’re not the type to give up, I know that, too. So let’s start from scratch. Right now.”
She reached out a hand to Willow and continued talking, but with a softened tone.
“It’s like the eclipse, Willow. When Mother Moon passes in front of the sun, the world around us gets a bit darker for a time. But the moon keeps going, and the sun’s light returns. Whatever you experience when you touch someone, it’s temporary. And you’re in control of it, because you can choose to let go. You won’t be able to learn to control the powers and their effects unless you take charge and do something. I'm not sure I'm making any sense.” Finally, after a moment's pause, she added, “If you need some time to think about it, I can come back tomorrow.”
Willow looked at Beetle's outstretched hand, knowing well what the invitation was. She had no idea what Beetle's idea of 'starting new' contained, and, to be honest, she didn't know how it would be any different than what she had tried over the evenings past – when she had tried touching others, tried to replicate what had happened when she was with Blacksnake at the hot-springs.
What if the results were the same? She wouldn't be any better off than she was now, but she wouldn't be any worse off, either. Again, she began to feel angry at herself for being so afraid.
After one more moment's pause, she reached out and took Beetle's hand.
…and the side effects of her ability presented themselves immediately.
Blood flows, a heartbeat becomes more rapid. Lungs, breathe in, breathe out, more quickly now. Stomach digests, everything as normal, everything goes on, on, on, to keep the body alive...
Willow didn't know how long it took before she gasped, let go of Beetle's hand, and drew back. She was left with that slight feeling of confusion, and that slight headache that always threatened to grow whenever this happened. She closed her eyes and shook her head to try and clear it.
Beetle's eyes went wide at first, but her expression soon melted into a look of concern as she watched her companion. She waited a moment in silence, giving Willow time to clear her head. “I didn’t feel anything, but it’s obvious you did — what did you feel?”
Willow kept the heel of her hand planted firmly against her right temple. “I felt a heartbeat, and blood... and your breathing, and normal things. But it's like it's not you... it's me — and that's when I start feeling like...” Willow trailed off. She tried to think of the right words. “Like I don't know if it's you, or me. I feel like I'm getting lost. And then, if I let go, I feel like I do now.... Like I've been trampled by a herd of shagbacks.”
"Willow," Beetle responded, "it sounds almost like you're going out of your body and entering mine. I can only imagine how strange that must seem to you. I sense that you don't want it to happen... but what if the way to control it comes from letting it happen? By accepting it? What if you try again, only this time follow it and let it happen. Observe what is going on. Then try finding your self again."
Willow moved her hand from her head and looked at Beetle. She wasn't really sure she wanted to try again. That wasn't exactly what had happened before when she had made it stop, but she couldn't really recall ever wanting to let those sensations happen, either.
She sighed deeply, though she didn't know if it was from resignation or just in preparation, and reached for Beetle's hand once again. She felt her fingers closing around Beetle's and waited for the inevitable to happen, trying all the while to be accepting, however that might feel.
Heart, blood. Blood, blood. Like a river, it circles through the body, around and around, at almost dizzying speed. 'I feel dizzy,' Willow thought to herself, and almost panicked trying to find something to keep her balance from toppling. 'Focus, she'd said, focus on the blood.'
Blood, blood. It falls into rhythm, hypnotic, hypnotic, like waves of the sea... there's almost something calming there. Watch the slight ebb and flow as the heart beats, like ocean waves on a calm day. Constant, yet slightly irregular. Not my blood, her blood. An endless cycle.
She didn't know how long she held on to Beetle's hand that time. She did find that if she focused on the blood, it could almost lull her into a sleep. It was hypnotizing, like watching ocean waves. She focused and immersed herself in the blood flow until she could see nothing else. Then, she remembered she had something she was supposed to be doing. What was she trying to do? Oh, right... she was trying to stop watching.
And so she tried. The realization had hit that she wasn't 'watching' herself, but how did she make that watching stop? How could she get away without letting go? Her mind couldn't help but think of times before. She'd got away by pushing away, pushing with her mind.
And so that's what she tried. She pushed, almost like she was blocking a sending, albeit weakly at first, as if whatever obstacle this was would weakly just give away. But that didn't work. She concentrated harder and stubbornly tried to push those sensations away again, but — once again — she just couldn't break that connection. After two more failed tries, a bit of panic began to set in. What if she'd never be able to control this? What if the last time was a fluke, and she'd never be able to touch someone as someone else, someone normal, could ever again?
The panic rose. She became afraid of those sensations, as if they were a mound of biting ants crawling over her, trying to engulf her, consume her. Get off... get away! Get away!
**Get away!** she lock-sent — the connection she had with Beetle at the moment made it easy to do so, even though she wasn't quite aware she was lock-sending. **Get away from me!** Panic, fear, a sense of losing oneself became overwhelmingly prevalent in that send, and then she pushed so hard with her mind she was certain that Beetle could feel it.
That was when the sensation stopped... and she let go of Beetle’s hand.
“Willow…” Beetle asked hesitantly, “are you all right?”
Willow's eyes went wide. Her temples were throbbing, but the pain was forgotten for a moment as she grabbed Beetle's hand again. Relief and a wide smile flooded her face, and she laughed to herself. She'd got away, and she hadn't hurt anyone while trying to do so!
And, immediately, she knew something had changed. She squeezed Beetle's hand — not hard enough to hurt — but harder than she had been. She closed her eyes. Her next words were almost a whisper, almost like she was talking to herself rather than to her companion. “I'd forgotten what it felt like just to be able to touch someone, just for a little while....”
But all too soon, the reprieve was over. Whatever had blocked those sensations began to wear off. She felt the tickle of that urge to 'go out,' so she let go of Beetle's hand before any unwanted sensations had a chance to take hold. “...And now it's gone again.”
She fell quiet. For a moment, just for a moment, she wanted to remember what it was like to feel 'normal.'
Willow opened her eyes. “I'm fine,” she finally answered, unable to hide the disappointment in her voice. “....And I know I should be happy right now, but I'm not.”
After a long silence, Beetle spoke, “You’re disappointed it didn’t last longer…. I’m just glad that it happened! You’re going to get to the point where you can control it more! For now, though, you’ve got this experience — a positive one in my mind — to keep you trying! And I think we will figure it out! Actually, I know we will!”
Beetle’s face was lit with excitement and hope, which was encouraging. “You know, Willow, when you touched me, there was a glow — it was kind of yellow, but almost white. That glow disappeared right before you let go of my hand.” Beetle’s observation was made almost as if she had been thinking out loud. Beetle then looked directly at Willow and asked excitedly, “What was it like? What happened when you went with the feeling? And… what caused that look of panic on your face, Willow? Why did you tell me to get away?”
Beetle's enthusiasm was contagious. Willow's mood lightened a moment, and then she paused to think. Everything she had just done seemed like a blur. What did happen? How did she manage to do what she had done? How could she explain?
“It's like...” Her gaze turned distant. “Imagine you walked into the forest and perched yourself in the highest tree, on the highest mountain peak, and then you look down. It's like... looking at the forest, the rivers, the trees, and — suddenly — every single animal, tree, plant, drop of water.... it all asks you to look at it right at that very instant, and there is no way for you to say no... you have to take it all in. But if you look too long, you run the risk of getting lost there and never finding your way back home.” She turned to look at Beetle. “That's why. Because each time I touch someone, I feel like the forest is going to swallow me up and I'm never going to come back.”
“But for a few minutes there, it didn’t, right? That’s why you grabbed my hand again — and why the glow stopped! I wonder… what happened right before you let go of my hand and grabbed it again? Somehow, I think maybe you found yourself and you were able to be back on that mountain instead of in the forest. At least we know what your goal is — to be on the mountain and in the forest at the same time and to be grounded so that you can just be on the mountain.”
“Yes, but how is the question,” Willow said, her tone turning impatient again. “I just want to move forward with this, to do what everyone expects of me. But I don't feel like I can without figuring this part out first. It will be a lot easier to learn how to do this if I don't have to deal with.... whatever happens when I touch someone all the time.”
Beetle smiled encouragingly. “Then let’s figure it out. Why don’t you try again, and do exactly the same thing you just did? You touch me, then go with the feeling, and when you start to worry about not getting back, then do exactly what you did. Push yourself away and find yourself again.”
The pain in Willow's head was a bit more intense, and Willow wasn't quite sure she wanted to go through with the ordeal she'd just put up with again. However, she knew she wouldn't get anywhere if she didn't try.
Not to mention, she wondered if she could make it happen again. That would be something in and of itself.
So try again, she did. Without answering, she reached for Beetle's hand again and tried to remember what she did before. Things seemed different this time. She seemed more aware, and it was harder to get lost as she had done before.
And then, it happened... the losing and the fear that she'd never find her way back to herself. In another fit of panic, she pushed away, and, with a gasp, she came back to herself.
Her head felt like she'd run headfirst into a branch.
She was still holding Beetle's hand. And all she felt was Beetle's hand. Nothing more. No sensations, no glow, just another elf’s hand.
“It worked,” Willow said quietly, beaming, even though her voice sounded strained and tired. “Now, if I could just figure out how to keep it like this.” She saw the faintest hint of a glow emerging from where her hand touched Beetle's and she let go. “Because now it's gone.”
Beetle seemed encouraged that Willow had gotten so far. “I think, Willow, that you’re closer to the answer now than you were earlier today. And I’m pretty sure if we try again, it will get easier and easier. What do you think?”
Willow leaned back against the den wall. “I don't think I have it in me to try this again.”
Beetle nodded. “You look exhausted. I didn’t mean tonight. When you’re ready, we’ll try again. I have some ideas, things you can try doing in addition to what you’ve already learned. Why don’t I go and get you something to eat and some water or something? Maybe… if you get some rest, we can try again — whenever you’re ready.”
Willow nodded. She felt that all-too-familiar tired sensation creeping over her, and her bed looked inviting, even though the night had only halfway passed. She closed her eyes and said, “Food would be good,” even though she didn't particularly feel hungry. Mostly, it just felt good to be in the company of someone else, and to feel like, perhaps, the hope she'd begun to feel that day at the hot-springs — the hope that had since fled — had been resurrected. She still didn't quite know how she was going to get to where she needed to be, but she hadn't hurt Beetle in the process of trying to find answers today. And that progress, for now, was a huge comfort. She began to relax.
Beetle left and returned a few moments later carrying the promised food and water. Willow looked up when Beetle entered and smiled. Beetle smiled back, but said nothing. She set the water and food near Willow’s bed and quietly left the den.
A moment didn’t pass before Beetle’s head appeared in the doorway again. “Hey, Willow,” she said. “Thanks for trusting me.”
Willow half-opened her eyes. **Thank you for being more patient than I am,** she replied, with a send full of gratitude and, more importantly, hope.