(This story begins directly after "Cause and Effect", and is related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" - see listing for more related stories.)
She was in there again, and that was akin to a burr under Notch's tail.
He had followed Willow here, to Blacksnake's den, after she had excused herself from the post-hunt gathering well before almost anyone else had left. She had gone inside Blacksnake's den – without the elder being there himself – and had remained inside well after Blacksnake had returned. To make matters even more interesting, Blacksnake hadn't said one cursed thing when he'd gone inside and surely must have noticed her. There was no bellowing, no kicking Willow out on her rump, or any other reaction Notch would have expected. It was almost as if Blacksnake had been expecting her to be there!
Willow had been in the den a long time – a good portion of the evening. From his perch in a well-positioned tree, Notch peered at the den\'s entrance, strained his ears, and sniffed the air in an attempt to find some kind of clue as to what she might be doing in there. But he got nothing, save for more frustration.
This wasn't the only time over the past three hands of days Notch had seen Willow sneak a visit to the elder's den; this time was just the first time he had seen her go in while no one was home.
Notch first caught Willow sneaking a visit when he had made up his mind to talk to her a couple of evenings after New Green Bliss. That time, Willow didn't linger for long inside. However, just seeing her go into Blacksnake's den was enough to arouse Notch's suspicions.
After that, Notch had started to keep an even closer eye on Willow's comings and goings. As nights passed, he found she had become a common visitor in his uncle's home. And though there seemed to be no pattern to her visits, she seemed to spend longer and longer amounts of time inside each time. Tonight was the longest she'd ever been in there.
Something strange was definitely going on. And Notch didn't like not knowing what it was at all.
He repositioned himself and watched some more, determined to find out something about this strange behavior.
Notch knew Willow had changed, and, for a while, he thought he knew why. Now, though, he wasn't sure he knew anything about his friend at all. She still repeatedly rejected his company – even when he was very clear he only wanted to talk with her. Why was she still so ready to push him away and so eager to take up the company of others – many of whom she'd never have associated with before?
He could see why Willow might want to spend time with Beetle, at least. He liked his half-sister, and he knew that her way of thinking had been a big help to Willow of late. But Blacksnake – boring old pus-filled blister-on-a-butt Blacksnake?! Badger's blood, what could Willow possibly be doing in there with him? He could hardly stand the not knowing! And why all this time, all of a sudden?
All of a sudden? No. Something clicked in Notch's mind. It hadn't been all of a sudden, had it? Back in the middle of White Cold, Willow had been sick and holed up in Blacksnake's den to recover for nearly a hand of days. When Notch had heard what had happened at the time, he\'d felt sorry for Willow – imagine her luck to have to end up that close to Blacksnake for so long! Willow must have been miserable. It had been like a sick, ironic joke, and Notch had found the circumstances very amusing at the time.
But no – her finding refuge in Blacksnake's den hadn\'t been coincidence, had it? The more he thought about it, the more his newfound suspicion seemed validated. Willow claimed to have been sick and very weak, but Blacksnake's den wasn't the only easily-accessible ground-level den. And the elder certainly hadn't been the only one around that evening.
Had Willow lied about that, too?
He knew it now: she'd gone into Blacksnake's den on purpose. On purpose! Both then and now! She'd been pushing Notch away in favor of the company of that grumpy sheep-sack all along!
The burr lodged itself in further. This discovery didn't just make him angry; it offended him to the very core.
Movement from the den caught Notch's eye, and he saw Willow duck outside.
Notch's eyes narrowed. He'd let Willow see that he had found out her little secret. It was time to get some answers about his friend's very strange behavior and to set her straight.
“Hey, Willow!” Notch called out in an unpleasant tone.
Willow looked up at him and even half-acknowledged he had said something to her, but that was it. She started heading in the other direction. That infuriated Notch all the more. He dropped from his perch and sprinted to Willow to catch up.
“Don't want to talk to me?” he asked.
“On what?” She still wasn't looking at him. “I like how you're so happy to ignore me now.”
Frustrated, Willow abruptly stopped and turned to Notch. “Fine! What do you want to talk about?”
“I don't know.... Maybe about why you don't want to spend time with me any more?”
“What makes you think that?”
“Well it's true, isn't it? Come on, Willow – you just tried to walk away without even acknowledging me.”
“Now is not a good time, Notch. I have things I need to do.” She paused at the steps leading up to the higher dens, but then changed her mind and kept walking around the back of the Mother Tree.
Notch kept following and raised his tone. “Oh, yes – you need to go back to your little tree-hole and practice using your precious healing powers. I should have known. That's all you ever do anymore. So, Wil' – who's the lucky subject this time? Rainpace? Dreamflight? My sister? Funny how you always ask them, but you never ask me.”
“It's funny you put it that way, because you've never offered, either.”
“You never asked!”
Willow blurted a derisive laugh. “Notch, you came to my den with one request, and one request only, and when I asked you to stop, you didn't. I didn't need that extra pressure. You made me feel more miserable than I already did. Why would I even want to ask you to help me now?”
They had reached the opposite side of the Mother Tree in the center of the living area. A handful of elves – Moss, Longshot, Snowfall, and Pathmark – were cleaning up the last remnants of the night's feast. A couple of them lifted their heads at the sounds of Notch and Willow's raised voices before they went back to their duties.
“I know that now!” Notch shot back. “But your touching someone else isn't even an issue now! I haven't asked you about sharing furs in days, anyway! I've tried to come to you to just talk, but you still don't want anything to do with me!”
Willow came up short outside the entrance to the gathering den. She narrowed her eyes and leaned toward Notch. “You know why? I have a problem with you. Your problem? You think I can let what you did to me night after night go like it was nothing.” She pointed a finger at him. “You think you're entitled to my friendship. I don't even think you\'re sorry for what you did.”
“I am sorry!” High Ones, the whole elaborate scheme he'd tried to arrange during New Green Bliss would have shown her as much, had he got to carry it out – or so he believed, anyway. “Why don't you just give me a chance to show you?”
“Because you're not sorry! If you were sorry, you wouldn't be chasing me around the dentrees with your fangs bared and ready to go for my throat!”
“Did you ever think I might be worried about you?”
“Ha! Worried? About what? Where was your worry when I needed it? Really, Notch, I'm fine now, so you can leave me alone.”
She turned away from him to duck inside, but Notch wasn't finished yet. He grabbed her by the shoulder.
“Let go!” Willow growled, trying to shrug him off. “I'm finished talking with you!”
Those who had been helping to clean were no longer doing so. Pathmark and Longshot were standing to get a better view. Snowfall and Moss craned their heads to observe the conversation. Nightstorm peeked out from a window high above. The shouting had also lured One-Leg from his den to see what was the commotion was about, too. Notch didn\'t care.
“No! You're going to listen to what I have to say! You've changed!” Notch cried. “You're not the Willow I know. You're nothing like her. The Willow I know would never even think to visit Blacksnake's den, unless she were planning a prank. She'd never go inside – night after night – and spend time there like you have been lately.”
Willow turned around with an eyebrow arched. Now that he had her attention again, Notch let go. “What does that matter to you?” Willow asked, her tone threatening.
He leaned in close. “Well, you and he seem to be growing pretty close. How many times have you gone to see him this past hand of nights? Two? Three? Getting all cozy with him, are you? Making great plans together? You just wait until the time is right and you turn your back on him. You'll be sorry when he shows his real face and twists the knife in when he stabs you in the back!”
Willow belted him across the face so quickly Notch didn't even know it was coming. The blow sent him sprawling to the ground. When the stars had cleared from his vision, Willow was standing over him with fangs bared. The others who had gathered to watch stood, both tense and silent, waiting to see how this scuffle would play out.
Willow snarled at Notch and bent down to look him in the eye. “How dare you say that? You don't know anything at all! Blacksnake helped me. He was smart enough to come to me and talk some sense into my head when I needed it most and when no one else would. He's helped me all along! And that's worth more than anything you ever tried to do over these past few moons!” Then, she straightened and went inside without another word.
Notch, still stunned, put a hand to his swelling cheek and watched her go. Willow had changed. She had never hit him before – not like that!
“Nice show of tact there, son!” One-Leg guffawed before turning to leave.
With that, the gathering crowd began to disperse. Nightstorm's head disappeared back inside her den and the others went back to finish clean-up. Notch could hear them chuckling to themselves as they went their separate ways.
As he finally pulled himself to his feet, Notch caught movement to the side, near the Child Tree. When he glanced in that direction, he saw Blacksnake leaning against the trunk with the widest smirk across his face Notch had ever seen.
Notch quickly turned away. He had never felt so humiliated in his entire life.