(This story is related to the events in "Ambush", is also related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.).)
Notch landed squarely with a solid thump in the middle of the entrance to Willow's den. Willow jumped from the sudden noise and nearly dropped one of the pelts she'd just taken in hand.
“Why not tonight?” Notch asked, barely giving her a chance to compose herself.
Willow sighed inwardly. 'Not this again.' How many times did she have to tell Notch no? She wasn't ready to share the furs with him – or anyone – yet. Given that she still wasn't able to control her abilities enough to keep from 'going out' to anyone she touched for more than just a few moments at a time, she knew that sharing the furs would be anything but a pleasurable experience.
Her wandering thoughts had deprived Notch of an answer. “So? Why not tonight?”
“Why is this night different than any other night?” Willow answered, finding herself quite annoyed.
“Because New Green Bliss is one of your favorite nights. It always has been.”
Willow groaned inwardly. Tonight, of all nights, she didn't want to be reminded of what she would have to miss because of her shortcomings. It used to be one of her favorite celebrations – a night of howling, painting, touching, ...joining. Oh, High Ones, how she missed the joining....
She felt another wave of frustration wash over her.
“Well then, this night is different!” Willow shot back. She angrily dropped her gaze back to the pelts and chose another from the pile. This would be anything but one of her favorite nights. In fact, it was going to be the worst New Green Bliss ever.
“It doesn't have to be.”
Willow heaved a sigh. She didn't want to talk about this right now. Why, oh why, did Notch always come here with just one thing on his mind, rather than to help? And why did he keep pestering when he knew this had to be a very hard night for her?
“Why not, Notch? Do you think I'll just walk out there with everyone else, all of us happily touching and painting and bumping into one another and everything will suddenly be all right?”
“How do you know it won't be? Have you even tried?” He leaned into the den a slight bit more, quirking an eyebrow inquisitively. “How long has it been since you've shared the furs with anyone, anyway?”
How long? Had he really just asked her that? That touched a verysore nerve.
It had been so long that she found her thoughts drifting when they should have been on learning to control her powers. If Rainpace, or Beetle, or one of the others was with her to help her practice, she would find herself thinking about past times when they'd spent a day in the furs together, rather than on healing. She couldn't count the times when she'd gone flushed when one of her helpers asked if she was paying attention lately.
It had been so long that she found herself in an interesting predicament when she'd stumbled upon One-Leg washing at the river the other day when it had been abnormally warm. One-Leg, of all the elves in the tribe... all speak-first and think-later... whom she'd never even have thought of in that way before! If things had been normal, she would probably have just left, but instead, like some shy cub, she'd stayed hidden downwind, watching him from a distance as he sunned himself dry on a rock, daydreaming about the things she'd love to do with him right at that moment, but knew she couldn't. A flush of color came to her cheeks at the mere thought of that recent event.
And now Notch had come to rub salt in the wound. Willow angrily hurled the pelt she had just picked up moments before to the ground. She had the sudden urge to give Notch an ear-lashing on parallel to the one she'd given him when he'd sneaked into her bed and lay in wait for her just a few dances of the moons ago. But she knew that would probably do no good. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Then she exhaled, slowly.
“It's been too long, if you want the truth,” she answered with a carefully controlled tone. Then she opened her eyes and turned to look at him. “What do you think, Notch, that I sit up here every day telling you 'no' because I want to? Do you think it makes me happy? Do you know how much it's killing me today knowing that I can't celebrate New Green Bliss like everyone else? Do you have any idea how difficult you're making this on tonight of all nights, just knowing what I'm going to have to miss out on.... because I haven't managed to figure out how to handle my abilities yet? And it's not because I haven't been trying!”
She saw Notch open his mouth and take in air to speak, but she cut him short with a glare. “Just go away. I'll come to you when I feel like I'm ready, and that time is not tonight.”
Notch did go away, which was surprising. He'd never given up quite so easily before. Maybe using a calm tone instead of yelling at him had worked. Maybe he was hatching another grand scheme. Willow didn't care, as long as he was gone.
Notch knew he had given up too easily, but that was fine. He was smart enough to know when he'd lost a battle. And he knew why he had lost: the rules of the game had changed.
Why had what Willow been saying to him all along, for months, only just now sunk in? She'd told him no yet again, but this time he finally heard her. He understood why. High Ones, he hadn't realized... Granted, he had never really taken the time to ask – he'd just assumed Willow was making things more difficult on herself like she always did when she was trying to learn something new, and he'd acted accordingly. But this really was hard on her, wasn't it? He felt horrible. He'd been just as stubborn as she had been, and he'd inadvertently made her feel all the worse by doing so.
He had an idea to fix things. He'd surprise Willow and find a way to make sure New Green Bliss remained one of her favorite celebrations. And he already had ideas of how to do that percolating in his head.
Willow sat silently in her den, staring at the pile of pelts on the floor, but not seeing them.
She was still angry – both at Notch and at herself – and the anger burned all the more brightly at the renewed thought of what she knew would be missing in a while. Most of the tribe would meet at the Holt's center, shed their Winter clothing, and howl. And then.... Curse it all, she couldn't stand to think of what would happen next. Why hadn't she been able to control her powers by the time this day had come? Why? She wanted to be with everyone else at the celebration so badly it hurt.
Suddenly, she didn't want to be around to witness what nearly everyone else would be doing tonight. The frustration and disappointment she'd been feeling more and more intensely over the last few days finally reached the point where it could only boil over.
With a growl, she grabbed her sling and sling pouch and secured them around her arm and waist, then haphazardly folded a couple of the smaller sleeping furs from her bed and tucked them under her arm before she stormed outside.
….And nearly knocked Beetle and her armful of pots containing dyed mud to the ground. Willow said nothing as she pushed her way past her friend and continued to storm down the stairs.
“Willow?” Beetle called after her, then turned and started to follow. “Willow, what's wrong?”
“I'm not going to stay here for it!” Willow called back. “You can't expect me to do it!”
“Stay for what? What are you talking about?” Beetle picked up her pace. Her longer legs made it easy for her to catch up.
“Tonight!” Willow practically spat the word. “I'm not going far. I'll be back tomorrow when it's all over. Tell the others that for me.”
But she would not. Even though Beetle had caught up, Sky was waiting at the foot of the steps. Willow climbed on to her wolf-friend's back and hurriedly urged Sky to leave.
“Wait! I'm coming with you!” One of the unbonded wolves was lazing nearby – Murkfur – and he was more than happy to take up Beetle's request to get on his back and give chase. Beetle set her pots full of mud down in a safe place, then quickly sent Willow's message to Windburn. She indicated that she would be accompanying the healer, too, and was off.
Preparations for the celebration were well underway at the Holt's center. Various bowls and jars of paint, mud, berries, baskets of feathers, and other items were slowly being deposited in a pile at the very middle of what was to be the night's celebrations. In just a while, the whole tribe would gather here, shed their winter clothing, and howl to welcome the New Green before taking various items from the pile to 'decorate' one another.
It was to this pile of decorations that Notch made a bee-line. He scanned the contents of a basket of feathers and selected a long black one before moving on to a pile of sea sponges that, later, would inevitably be put to use for either body painting or for scrubbing off said paint. The two on the top were too small for the purpose he had in mind, so he picked those up and put them off to the side.
“What're you doing?” Notch stopped short at the voice. He looked up to spy Crackle perched directly across from him and eyeing him intently.
“I'm getting some things ready for the celebration tonight.” He grinned at Crackle, then picked up another sponge, one that was much larger and relatively soft, as far as dried sponges go. Perfect. He took it.
Crackle's brow furrowed as she watched. “I thought we were supposed to bring things to the pile, not take them away.”
“Well, mostly we are. I've got a bowl full of shiny creek-tumbled rocks I've tied to twine that I'll be bringing out here soon, but there's something I need to do with these things first.”
Notch squatted down so he could be eye-level with Crackle. As much as he adored her, he knew he had to choose his next words carefully, or he might end up having a too-curious companion for the rest of the evening.
“Today is a day for surprises. If I told you what I was doing, it wouldn't be a surprise anymore.”
Crackle's eyes went wide. “Is it a surprise for me?”
No, that hadn't been the right thing to say, and Notch could see Crackle growing more and more attached to what he was doing by the moment.
But then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Evervale approaching Longshot on the opposite side of the pile and saw a potential redemption. He turned back to Crackle.
“No, not this time, Crackling-cub. But I'll tell you a secret. Do you want to hear?”
“Yes! Tell me!”
“Well,” Notch began, casting an obvious glance over at Longshot. Crackle, noticing the gaze, turned around to look, too. Notch whispered, “I heard that Longshot has something really fun he's going to paint on himself this year. I'm sure if you asked him nicely, he'd paint that on you, too, and the two of you could match!”
“Do you think so?” Crackle asked. Notch tried not to grin. He could practically see the thoughts racing through the cub's pretty little head.
“I'm so positive, I'd bet on it!” he said with a wink. “You should go ask him.”
“I will!” Crackle cried.
However, Crackle had taken no more than two steps before Windsong called out to her. “Crackle, come here – where did you put your shirt? I don't see it in the den, and it had better not be out where it will get trampled by paint-stained feet later.”
“I put it on my shelf!” Crackle called back.
“I don't see it. Are you sure?” Windsong responded.
“It's there. I'll show you!” With that, Crackle took off running toward her den.
With a chuckle, Notch reached over and selected one or two more baubles from a couple more baskets. He knew he probably should have gone to finish up his little surprise, but he couldn't help staying to see how well his diversion would work. Poor Longshot. The archer might have a shadow for the rest of the night.
Willow and Beetle rode in silence as they headed south, out of the forest and into the Broad Meadow. Willow kept Sky a few paces ahead, and she didn't seem to mind that Beetle had chosen to follow her. Or, at the very least, Beetle had heard no objections. Beetle watched her friend's back as they rode under the moonlit night. She could tell from Willow's posture that the healer was tense, and though it seemed like Willow was keeping a eye out for danger, she also seemed preoccupied.
Beetle had become very familiar with Willow's temperament over the past couple of moons as she had worked to help the new healer harness her powers. She knew Willow had a short temper, and there were also times when the healer seemed to have no patience. Both of those traits had been especially prominent over the past couple of days. What Beetle saw now was different, but was it related? Willow seemed very upset, and though Beetle could try to make guesses at why, she wouldn't be able to be certain about the issue until Willow decided to start talking. Even though she saw Willow periodically wipe her eyes with the back of her hand, Beetle didn't press. She'd also learned these past few moons that Willow became very uncomfortable when it came to showing certain emotions, and that during those times it was sometimes best to be quiet and just be there.
Mother Moon was high in the sky by the time Willow stopped at a stand of trees near the center of the meadow. A tiny rivulet of a spring-thaw creek trickled nearby, and after Beetle and Willow both dismounted their wolves, their mounts went directly to the fresh water to quench their thirst.
Willow, however, made no such move. Instead, she walked to a small hollow nestled in the roots of an old tree near the center of the stand and spread out one of the sleeping furs she'd taken with her. She held the other one out to Beetle.
“I don't know where you want to put it,” Willow said. Her voice was broken and heavy, and she cleared her throat a couple of times to try and hide the fact. “You didn't have to come here with me, you know. Wouldn't you rather have stayed and celebrated with the others?”
Beetle took the fur that was offered. “I know I didn't have to come. But I wanted to. You looked like you needed the company.”
“Yeah, well...” Willow trailed off and bent to smooth the wrinkles from her sleeping fur to make it more comfortable to sit upon. When she finally sat down, she heaved a ragged sigh.
Beetle spread her fur nearby and sat, as well. She waited for Willow to get comfortable, and then felt it was the right time to speak. “I'm sorry you couldn't go to the celebration tonight, either.”
Willow didn't answer right away, and Beetle thought she saw her friend bite her lower lip. “Yeah, well...” Willow began again, just like she had before, and then said nothing. Beetle tried to read her friend's face. Was she thinking? Was she still trying to keep her emotions back? Yes, that's what it was.
“It's all right to be disappointed,” Beetle finally said, quietly. Willow gave a quick nod.
Beetle felt sorry that tonight was turning out to be so miserable for Willow and wanted to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder. However, she knew that would not be the right thing to do. She folded her hands in her lap, instead. She really didn't know what else to do or to say at this point, so she sat silently and tried to look for cues to decide what her next step should be.
To her surprise, Willow broke the silence. “It's just that,” Willow began, then paused to take a deep breath when her voice started shaking, “after all this time, couldn't I at least have figured things out enough so I could have gone to the celebration? But I haven't yet. I'm stuck back where I was when all of this first started.”
“No you're not!” Beetle countered. “You're closer to finding answers. You'll get it eventually! And I'd bet it will be sooner rather than later. Remember when we first started, and you could only touch me for a second before you had to let go of my hand? It's different now. You're doing better--”
“No, I'm not doing good enough,” Willow interrupted. “I've tried.... High Ones know I've tried to figure this out.”
“You are trying. Did someone tell you you weren't?” The thought of that made Beetle angry.
“No. Well, not really. No. It's just that... I'm just so tired of it being like this--” her voice broke with that last word, and she buried her head in her hands to try and stifle a sob.
“Oh, Willow,” Beetle said, moving closer. “Go ahead and cry. It will make you feel better.”
As if that were the permission the healer needed, the tears came, quickly accompanied by heart-wrenching sobs that made Beetle tear up, too. What could she do? Beetle wanted so badly to make Willow feel better that the instinct Beetle had pushed aside before won out. She slid over to Willow, gingerly put an arm around her, and pulled her close. Willow wrapped her arms around Beetle, squeezed her tightly, and cried on her shoulder.
Beetle held her breath and waited for the inevitable. She knew it would just be a few more moments before the side-effects of the healing abilities Willow possessed would become too much and she'd have to pull away. Beetle felt angry again. It wasn't fair. It didn't take much to see that simple contact with someone else was all Willow really wanted right now. Why was it that an ability so wonderful would also be so cruel as to deny such a basic need?
Moments passed. Long moments. Too... many moments? Willow, crying, was still leaning on her. But there was no tell-tale yellow glow. Beetle's eyes went wide. She had to try something. Carefully, she slid her arm from Willow's shoulder and began to rub her on the back. That didn't seem to trigger the expected reaction, either. A smile crept onto Beetle's face. Did Willow not know what was happening? This was wonderful! She wrapped her arms around Willow and squeezed her friend.
Notch pulled the leather lash tightly so the sponge would stay securely connected to the end forked stick he'd found. He bit off the extra ends of the lashing, then set this invention down next to the three others he'd made with the gathered items from the New Green Bliss piles earlier. Everything seemed to be in perfect order.
Notch smiled to himself as he looked over his handiwork. If being touched was what was bothering Willow, he would show her that she could enjoy the evening without being touched – at least directly. She wouldn't have to miss out on the festivities at all.
Tonight would be Willow's night. He couldn't get that look in her eyes out of his head when she'd said it had been too long since she'd been with anyone. She was miserable. He tried to imagine what it might be like to not be able to touch anyone. He couldn't imagine it. The thought of making Willow feel good made him feel better; it smothered that pit of guilt that had begun to burn inside his gut when he realized how he'd inadvertently treated his friend for so long.
Satisfied that everything was ready, he put his various inventions in a basket and stowed it in a corner of his den where they would be out of sight. He'd find Willow at the festivities tonight and put his plan into motion.
Beetle held Willow and let her cry until the tears and sadness were spent. When the sobs died away, Beetle whispered, “Willow, do you know what's happening?”
Willow breathed in a ragged gasp of air. “I'm feeling stupidly sorry for myself and making a mess of your poncho?”
“No, silly,” Beetle replied with a chuckle. “You're touching me, and nothing's happening!”
Beetle felt Willow tense up immediately, and thought the new healer was going to pull away. But she didn't – at least not at first. It was only when that yellow glow finally appeared a few moments later that Willow untangled her arms from around Beetle and pulled back.
The new healer sat back with an intense look on her face and stared at her hands. Then she leaned toward Beetle again and put a hand on her shoulder. Beetle held her breath, daring to hope that her friend might have stumbled upon something, but felt Willow's disappointment just mere moments later when the glow began again and Willow had to pull her hand away.
Willow shook her hand out, as if that would make the difference, and then reached out again. Again, she failed. “I don't know what I did,” she said dejectedly. Her voice carried a hint of desperation.
“Don't get frustrated. Something changed. Stop and think about what it might have been,” Beetle encouraged. They'd hit upon something here, and she wasn't about to let this opportunity to learn what it was pass them by. “What was different?”
“Besides the fact I was bawling my eyes out?” Willow half-joked with an uneasy chuckle. But then she became serious and sat back to reflect. Finally, she said, “All I know is, I wasn't thinking about it then. I was thinking of the celebration, and how much I wanted to be there, and how I was wondering if I'd ever be able to touch anyone normally again.”
“But then when I told you, you tensed all up. You remembered,” Beetle added.
Willow nodded. “It's like I forgot about it for a while.”
Beetle's face lit up. “So what if we made you forget again?”
“That's probably easier said than done.”
“Maybe... but let's start simple. Let's try.... oh, I know! Close your eyes.”
“What will that do?”
“Just try it!”
“All right,” Willow sighed, and she did as she was told.
“No peeking,” Beetle warned.
The howling was over, as was the painting and decorating. While Notch had thoroughly enjoyed them both, he hadn't been able to find Willow even sitting on the outskirts to watch the celebration. He hadn't wanted to ask after her whereabouts for fear it would inadvertently draw others into his plans. He wanted Willow to himself tonight.
But now that he thought of it, why would she have even wanted to come? She'd seemed upset enough about the thought of the celebration earlier.
Now that everyone had begun to go their separate ways, Notch turned toward the dentrees.
Collecting his things only took a handful of moments. Now, with basket in hand, he hurried to Willow's den as quietly as possible. He was out of breath by the time he got to the top of the stairs leading to the Mother Tree's highest den, so he chose to scratch on the closed den flap to get Willow's attention. He didn't dare send; he didn't want to give away his surprise.
Notch listened. There was no answer. In fact, it was overly quiet inside. He leaned in more closely, testing the air for Willow's scent. It was there, but it was faint. Willow was not home.
'She did go out for the night, so she didn't have to hear all the howling and celebrating,' he deduced. This was a setback, but it was only a minor one. Willow couldn't have gone far – at least not without telling anyone she was going to do so. He walked back down the steps, and when he got to the forest floor, he sniffed the air. There was a cacophony of intermixed scents here, a byproduct of the tribe's everyday comings and goings. However, he picked Willow's scent out from the rest of them and followed where it led. The trail was a little cold, but it was clear that his friend had mounted up on wolfback and had headed south.
He went back to his den, threw on some leathers, called Beauty to him, and followed.
When Beetle was sure Willow's eyes were good and closed, she started to count to herself.
One... two... three...
“Can I open my eyes yet?”
“No.” Four... five... six...
When Beetle reached the last number, she slowly reached out and put her hand on top of Willow's. Almost immediately, Willow flinched and nearly drew back, but stopped herself. The look of surprise on Willow's face melted into one of determination. Beetle knew that look. The healer was trying her best to keep her powers in check. However, just moments later, the glow began to appear, and Beetle had to remove her hand.
Willow shook her head and started to say something, but Beetle cut her off. “No. It didn't work because that didn't make you forget. It just distracted you for a little...” she trailed off.
Willow opened her eyes and looked at Beetle. “I don't--”
“No, no -- close your eyes again!” Beetle blurted. She had another idea.
“It didn't work last time,” Willow grumbled, but she did as she was told again. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the tree behind her.
“All right,” Beetle began, “I want you to picture this in your mind. Imagine... Imagine a wide horizon in a nice, big clearing. Almost like this one. It's sundown, almost dusk. The sky is nearly dark, but the horizon is tinged with the color of rust.”
She watched Willow's face as she leaned closer and continued. She started to send images while she spoke of them, but was careful not to send too much. She didn't want to give away what she was doing. **Rust and black dappled on gathering clouds. And then the wind picks up, tousling the newly grown leaves on the trees. There's a storm coming, and the air smells like skyfire and rain.**
Willow, whether she knew it or not, took a deep breath, as if she was sniffing the air. Her face relaxed. The hint of a smile appeared on her lips as Beetle went on. **As darkness falls, the lightning begins, arching across the sky like giant fingers. Then, the clouds move closer, swallowing up the sky and hiding the stars.**
“And then,” Beetle said aloud, in a whisper, as she ever so carefully reached out with her index finger and softly touched Willow on the back of the hand, “the rain begins to fall. Not a cold rain, but a warm, soothing rain. The kind that tickles across your skin.” She lightly moved her fingers up Willow's wrist and then her forearm, watching carefully for any signs of glowing. So far, so good – this was working! Beetle grew more and more excited with each passing moment, so much so that she almost forgot to continue. “And then, before you know it, the storm blows itself out, and it's gone.”
She stopped talking, but she didn't pull back. Instead, she brushed her fingers down Willow's arm again, down to her hand.
Willow got gooseflesh and let out a small laugh. Then, she opened her eyes.
“Nothing's happening,” Beetle said with a grin.
Willow burst into a grin nearly as wide. “It's not!” she breathlessly exclaimed. And when Beetle went to move her hand, Willow stopped her by putting her other hand over hers. “Not yet,” she begged. She took a deep breath, and Beetle noted that Willow looked relaxed – more relaxed than Beetle had ever seen her friend before.
Willow sat still for long moments, and then moved her hand from Beetle's. There was a look of tentative hope in her eyes as she brushed her fingertips up Beetle's arm, much as Beetle had done to her just moments before. She did the same with her other hand, touching slowly, carefully, as though if she moved too quickly she would somehow break whatever missing piece she had found – that thing she had been searching for for so long.
'Please let her have found it,' Beetle begged, almost too afraid to move.
Willow lifted a hand to Beetle's face and then placed it against her cheek. Again, nothing. The healer moved her fingers, seemingly savoring each moment of contact as if she were touching another elf for the first time. Willow sighed and moved her fingers to Beetle's nose, and then to her mouth and her chin before she finally drew her hand away. Beetle saw tears pool up in the corner of Willow's eyes and stream down her cheeks. Beetle couldn't resist reaching up and wiping those happy tears away.
Then, almost as if Willow wanted to be doubly sure, she took a deep breath, closed her eyes for just a moment – to make herself relax, Beetle reasoned – and reached out and brushed her fingertips over Beetle's arm again. Again, nothing happened.
Willow smiled, and her eyes found her friend's. **It's like it was there all along, but I just didn't know what to do with it,** Willow sent, her mind touch full of unspeakable relief and gratitude. Then, she put her arms around Beetle and pulled her close. **It's like....** There must not have been words to explain, because what came from Willow next was a barrage of what Beetle could only describe as concepts. **Holding those sensations back to where they can't reach, keeping them close to me, with me, until I want to let them out to do what I tell them to do.**
Beetle squeezed Willow. **I'm so glad. Oh, Willow, I know how much you've wanted this.** She felt her own warm tears streaming down.
As Notch traveled southward, he noticed two sets of wolf tracks leading in that direction. He sniffed the air again. The intermingled scents of the other tribemates besides Willow's had grown weaker, with the exception of one: Beetle's.
Notch lowered his brows. He hadn't noticed his half-sister wasn't at the celebration; he'd been too caught up in the initial festivities and keeping an eye out for Willow to notice much else. What was Beetle doing out here with Willow? Had Willow chosen to go so far away from the Holt that she needed to bring a companion? Somehow he doubted that was the case.
It irritated him that his well-thought-out-plans looked like they wouldn't happen tonight – especially since he'd forgone some of his favorite portions of tonight's celebration himself. But he was happy that Willow wasn't alone like he thought she would be. He'd have a chance to try his inventions later, and it might not be too late for him to go back to the Holt and try and find someone still willing to have a roll or two in the furs before the sun rose.
He turned Beauty around to head back when a thought struck him. Joining wasn't the only way to spend time with his friend... and Willow might even welcome him if he came to her without even a mention of it.
Now that was a thought.
He missed Willow. Her rejections over the past few moons had stung. He really wanted nothing more on this night than to let Willow know he cared for her. He wanted her to feel better. He wanted to help her... and if just talking to her and spending time with her tonight would do that, then that's what he would do.
Yes, Willow was with Beetle, but he didn't think his half-sister would mind, either, if he came to keep them company.
That settled, Notch stashed his basket of inventions where he figured no one would find it and continued to follow the trail southward. He'd retrieve those later when the time was right. He knew Willow would appreciate the work he'd put into making them.
Beetle and Willow held each other until Willow finally let go. The healer chuckled.
Beetle shot Willow a curious look.
**It's just been so long since I've felt normal.** Willow sent what she'd told almost no one of the past few moons – of how miserable and lonely she'd been, even though friends and family had been just an arm's reach away, of how she felt trapped, and of what she would have given just to touch someone like she had been able to with Beetle just moments before.
**Well, feel normal now!** Beetle sent, laughing. She took Willow's hand and placed it on her cheek. Willow laughed, too, and then her expression changed to something more serious.
**What?** Beetle asked, concerned at the sudden change in attitude. Had the side-effects to Willow's powers returned? There was no glow, as far as she could see.
**It's still New Green Bliss, and we're together... would you like to--**
Relieved it was this and nothing serious, Beetle interrupted, **Would you like to?**
**Yes. If you would like to, I would, too.** Both Willow's send and smile were confident.
Beetle took Willow's hand with a smile of her own. **Then, yes.**
**Shall we begin appropriately?** Willow tipped her head toward the spring-thaw creek and the mud that was sure to be around it. It would make the perfect body-painting medium, and she suddenly had some interesting designs in mind that she shared with her companion.
Beetle laughed. **Yes. Let's.**
The cloudy horizon was just beginning to show the first streaks of pink to herald the rise of the daystar when Sky and Murkfur loped out of a close stand of trees and huffed a greeting. With a grin, Notch dismounted Beauty and let the wolves greet one another in their own fashion. He'd found where Willow and Beetle were hiding.
He waited for his sister and his friend to greet him as he walked toward the trees. He was sure both of them would be surprised that he'd followed them out there. He wished he would have brought some food from the celebration with him. Willow and Beetle probably hadn't had anything to eat.
As he walked closer, that fact no one was forthcoming gave Notch pause. It was almost too quiet. Where were those two? Why hadn't they come out to greet him yet? Were they sleeping?
He was about to send to them when a sound from the trees brought him up short. It was a moan – one that he'd heard numerous times in the past – and it wasn't a moan of pain.
Notch's jaw dropped. He knew exactly what was happening, but he couldn't bring himself to believe it. Willow...? Beetle and Willow...?
But Willow had said she couldn't touch anyone yet!
The initial shock Notch felt was replaced by befuddlement. Why Beetle, after he'd put up with two seasons' worth of rejection after rejection? This was weird. Weird and wrong.
No, what it was – was insulting! Why had Willow chosen Beetle over him? It certainly wasn't an issue of being able to please her. Why, then, after Willow had promised – just this night – that she would come to him when she was ready? So much for that promise.
He thought he had Willow figured out after feeling such a disconnect from her after all this time. But he hadn't worked out anything, had he? He hadn't made any progress. He was back to where he'd started from.
Was Willow so angry at him that she didn't want to be with him any more?
Frustrated, he turned and walked back to Beauty. He had thinking he needed to do.
Willow lay relaxed and propped up on one arm in the sleeping furs with Beetle snuggled close against her. She listened to the rhythmic sounds of Beetle's sleep-breathing, but she could not sleep herself – not yet. She gently slid a hand down Beetle's side, careful not to wake her friend.
She was too excited over what had happened this past eve. She took a deep breath and felt how she could hold the power she contained back. She was nearly to the point now that it required no effort. It was strange that once she had stumbled upon the answer, control – well, keeping her power in check, at least – seemed so relatively easy afterward. Maybe it was because of how hard she'd worked to get to this point.
What if this was just some cruel twist of fate? What if she fell asleep and awoke knowing nothing again?
Willow pushed that thought out of her mind faster than it had a chance to complete. No. She was tired of feeling helpless. She'd found what she'd needed. She'd found control of her powers and she was not going to give that up for anything.
Now she could start living again.
With that thought, Willow lay down, put her arm around Beetle, and pulled her friend closer, relishing the feel of warm skin against hers. In the corner of her mind, she knew there would be responsibilities and much, much more to learn before she could even claim to have mastered this ability she had been given.
For now though, it was time to live in the moment and be normal. That's what celebrations were for, after all.
As Willow felt the tendrils of sleep creep in, she couldn't help but to think this was the best New Green Bliss ever.