(This story is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
The hunt wasn't one of the longer ones, but it had been nearly as successful as some of the extended forays of late. Blacksnake's group had killed and brought back two deer, and the tribe had been more than happy to feast on the fresh early-Spring catch.
Willow had gathered to feast with the others. Since she had made her breakthrough and the worry of unwanted sensations when she touched someone else was gone, she found these gatherings much more enjoyable. However, something was troubling her on this eve. Something about Blacksnake wasn't quite right, and she couldn't sort out what it was. She watched him as he walked around the gathering, as he talked to his brothers, and as he went to retrieve another hunk of meat to eat.
What was wrong?
She finally realized what it was when he started to squat to cut some of the meat off a haunch, but stopped quickly and ended up bending to do so instead. If she hadn't been watching, Willow wouldn't have noticed the wince. A quick glance around the circle of elves seemed to indicate no one else was paying attention...
She kept an eye on him for the rest of the gathering. Blacksnake was hurting. Willow could see more and more clues pointing to that fact in the careful way Blacksnake stepped or bent. He was moving slowly and deliberately, but he was hiding the fact he was doing so, and he was hiding it well. He didn't want anyone to know about his vulnerabilities, just like an old wolf that kept such things secret to avoid an unnecessary or unwarranted challenge. Had Willow not discovered his aches and pains time and time again when her healing powers had leaked, she might have been fooled as well.
But she did know, and she knew those aches and pains were worse today for some reason. Perhaps it had to do with the recent rains. It was hard to tell. Besides, the cause didn't really matter. What did matter was that she could do something about it.
She pushed herself to her feet and made an excuse to leave the gathering. When she was out of sight of the gathering area, she walked around the back of Child Tree until she reached Blacksnake's den. Then, she ducked inside, found herself a comfortable spot on his bed, and waited for him to return.
This wasn't the first time Willow had let herself inside Blacksnake's den. Unbeknownst to the rest of the tribe, Blacksnake had given her permission to do so.
It all started a few hands of days after she had recovered from her overexertion-induced illness. She was in the gathering den and was feeling particularly stressed and pressured when Blacksnake approached her.
“Come with me,” he said, and Willow followed him, even though there seemed to be no clear reasoning behind his request. Confusion turned to absolute bewilderment when they circled around the outside of the dentrees and to his den. She paused when he gestured for her to enter.
He noticed her hesitation, and then said, “You looked like you needed a break, and no one is likely to follow you in here.”
Realization struck, and Willow nodded. She gave Blacksnake a very relieved smile and thanked him before she ducked inside.
The rest of that 'visit' was awkward, to say the least. Blacksnake didn't say much more to her while she stayed – he busied himself with fixing weapons in need of repair and left her to herself. She eventually sneaked in a wolfnap and, when she awoke, found herself feeling a lot less harried. Blacksnake had left sometime while she was asleep, so she saw herself out.
Since then, she occasionally found herself seeking out Blacksnake's den when she felt the stress and pressure associated with learning her new abilities approach a critical point. She made sure not to over-use the escape, lest someone trail her to her refuge or lest she wear out her welcome. Sometimes Blacksnake would be at home, and sometimes not, but she didn't touch his belongings, save to rearrange the furs on his bed to make a more comfortable place to sit or sleep.
Blacksnake never complained when she sought out solace in his den. On the past couple of occasions, they'd even shared brief conversations about the latest hunt or speculations over how warm the upcoming hot months might be. And even though the conversations weren't really over anything too meaningful, Willow found she enjoyed them. She liked the non-gruff side of Blacksnake she had so recently discovered. Time spent with him wasn't the uncomfortable experience she might have imagined due to her past impressions at all.
So, as she sat and waited for Blacksnake to arrive after the gathering, she knew he wouldn't mind her being there. He might be surprised, however, at why she had come.
Willow didn't have to wait long for Blacksnake's return. He ducked inside his den and it only took him a few moments to realize she was there.
“Hey, Old wolf.” Her nickname for him had arisen as a response to the diminutive he still often called her. She still hated being called that, and had intended to start calling Blacksnake something equally as aggravating to get back at him, but the elder had taken the name in stride instead.
“Taking a break? It didn't seem like anyone was bothering you too much at the gathering.”
“No, not really. I wanted to come see you.”
“Yes.” Willow thought for a moment. She didn't really know the best way to bring up the subject, or how to go about doing what she needed to do. After all, as far as Willow knew, Blacksnake hadn't really admitted to anyone that the problem was there. She looked up at him, stood, and took a deep breath. “Blacksnake, I know you're hurting.”
“Nonsense,” Blacksnake snorted. “I'm fine.”
“No, you're not.” Blacksnake was saying one thing, but she found he wasn't meeting her gaze. That bothered her, and told her that her eyes hadn't been fooling her before when she noticed his actions at the gathering. “You hurt. I know – I've felt it before, and I can see it today.” She closed the distance between them and placed a hand on his right arm. Then, she took a deep breath, and prepared to let her healing energy loose. “I want to help.”
The healer's glow appeared almost instantly, and as it did so, Blacksnake forcefully pushed Willow away. His face was all seriousness and anger. **Get back!** he sent. His mindvoice was defensive, protective, and commanding. It was also full of images and a memory of hurt from the last time Willow had used her powers on him.
Both the pushing away and the recollection hurt Willow, too. She remembered that day at the hot-springs well, and the guilt and shame she felt from what she had done to Blacksnake still burned brightly. But she had hoped he had put that past him and had put some faith, at least, in her instead. Her hopes were incorrect. Submissively, she moved back to his bed and sat down. Then, she bowed her head and locked her gaze on the den floor.
**I'm sorry.** Her return sending was laden with submission, hurt, and deep regret over the fact she'd ever hurt him. **I can understand why you don't trust me. I should have asked your permission first. I don't know how to make you trust me again, except to let me show you it wouldn't be that way this time.**
There were long moments so full of silence Willow thought she would be asked to leave.
But then, Blacksnake moved over to the bed and sat down next to Willow.
**Look at me,** he told her, and she did so. She almost did a double-take at his expression. She'd never seen Blacksnake look that way before; it was almost unsettling. He was sheepish and sorry, and his send was as full of remorse as Willow's had been. **I should apologize, not you--**
**I shouldn't have tried to surprise you--**
**Let me finish.**
Willow kept silent and nodded.
**No, you shouldn't have tried to surprise me. You should have asked me first. But if you're going to learn, we need to help you practice.**
A rueful smile crept across his lips and he held his hand out to her. He had said 'we' – he knew he was now joining the ranks of Beetle, Rainpace, and others who had helped her heal before.
Willow smiled and took Blacksnake's hand. She wouldn't do anything, however, unless Blacksnake said it was all right. **May I, then?**
**Yes, healer. Let's see what you can do.**
Willow found it. Pain, ache. Wrong. The source of Blacksnake's pain wasn't something foreign, but from something that had happened long ago. She turned her head to the side. She'd heard something. Grinding there. Angry. Body compensates by drawing liquid to where the hurt is, swelling, adding pressure. More pain.. The cushion in his knees was angry, swollen, and achy. And the hunt today had irritated what had already been sore.
Suddenly, flashes of a long-ago injury – the beginning of this end – burst like skyfire in the back of Willow's mind. Hunt, chase. The rocksheep turns too quickly. It crumbles to the ground, slides on loose dirt, and though Blacksnake tries to dodge out of the way, he doesn't move quickly enough. The injured beast strikes Blacksnake in the back of his legs, injuring the knees...
And then she felt the pain. She felt echoes of the old injury and the more constant nag of the new. The knee hurt to move, and it hurt to keep still. Pain like that, she figured, would keep her awake at night. Perhaps it had him, too.
**Hurts,** she sent to Blacksnake, although after she sent to him, she wasn't sure if she'd told him she knew he hurt, or that she could feel it, too.
She focused back on the healing.
Stop. Make the pain quiet. That was what she had to do first in order to continue. Pain was distracting. It was like a fog that hid the ground beneath. If she kept it there, she couldn't see to work. But it was stubborn and didn't want to be silenced – at least not without a fight.
So she fought it, tendril by tendril, dowsing the sensations like a foot on a wayward fire spark. She crushed it back until it submitted, parted way, and revealed the damage that was hidden beneath.
And the damage, too, had a voice of its own. Wrong, wrong... not in its place. Swollen. Angry. Pressure. Wrong.
What could Willow do to make it right? At first, she didn't know. So she sent her energies more deeply into the knee to see if there might be a good place to try and begin. And when she finally got her bearings in that foreign place, she slowly, ever so slowly, began to grow, shift, and arrange things in what those gut sensations said would be the proper order.
This was going to take longer than she thought.
Willow didn't know how long it took, but she kept arranging, moving, and tending to what was screaming wrong in Blacksnake's knees until all complaints of wrongness fell silent.
Then, satisfied she'd finished, she took a deep breath and drew her healing energy back into place within her. She let Blacksnake's hand go and felt a wave of fatigue wash over her. She didn't feel she had the strength to even open her eyes.
She felt Blacksnake put a hand on her arm. **Are you all right?**
Willow nodded. **Just tired. Give me a little while.**
**Rest, then. Take all the time you need.**
She laid down with the intentions of just resting a just a few moments, but she must have dozed off. When she opened her eyes, Blacksnake was moving around the den. He bent, flexed, and crouched. Then, she watched him walk in circles and test every step.
Willow sat up. **Better?** she sent, full of hope.
**Ahh, you're awake.** Blacksnake turned toward her and smiled. **Yes, I am. I'm much, much better. I haven't felt this good in... longer than I can remember.**
**Good!** Willow was suddenly filled with a sense of accomplishment. She'd done what she had come to do, and it appeared she had done it well. She pushed herself from Blacksnake's bed and to her feet and took a few steps toward the door. She was feeling a lot better herself. Enough, at least, to be steady on her feet.
Blacksnake watched her. “Leaving so soon?”
“I promised Pathmark I'd practice with him tonight, and I'm guessing it's already late.”
Blacksnake nodded. “Good eve, then.”
Willow made to leave, but then turned, walked back to Blacksnake, and hugged him.
**Thank you, Old Wolf,** she sent. She wanted to thank him for everything – for letting her heal him today, for helping her that day at the hot-springs and later on when she was sick, and for believing in her all along.
Blacksnake replied, **Thank you.** The debt she seemed to think she owed him, in his mind, was repaid. His send alone told Willow how much it meant to him not to hurt anymore. **But not a word that this happened, all right?**
Willow chuckled. **I was never here,** she said with a wink, then let go and ducked back out into the waning night.