(This story follows "Move, Counter-Move", and also begins the "Romance between Beetle and Willow" storyline.)
"What were you thinking?"
Beetle heard a voice, but was not really paying attention. She had decided it was best to tune out the voices of her tribemates while she was being shunned. It saved her from feeling left out and allowed her to really focus on whatever she was doing at the time. At the moment, she was simply standing on a rock near the river, staring into the water and watching the occasional fish go by. The sound of the river was soothing, and it helped to drown out the sounds of others.
The voice grew more persistent. "Beetle! What were you thinking?"
As her name registered in her mind, she was shocked. Someone was talking to her? But Windburn had said.... Then, as she added up the days in her mind, a smile broke on her face, and she turned to face the person she had missed the most during her three hands of shunning.
But Willow didn't return her smile. She looked angry, and when she spoke, there could be no doubt she was. "It was stupid. Stupid! Notch has come up with some pretty awful ideas before, but this was the worst ever -- and you went with him! What if you'd have been caught? What if Wolfkiller had got his hands on you?"
Beetle's face flushed and she took a half step back, her smile becoming more serious. She looked down, and she was slightly ashamed. But just slightly. "You're right," she said quietly. "It wasn't the best idea, and it was dangerous." Beetle had had more than enough time to think about it. "We risked all of our lives, and that was foolish."
She stopped, then looked up. A light was gleaming in her eye now, and she started speaking again, this time with conviction and hope. The solitude had given her ample time to convince her that she, Notch, and Foxtail had done something dangerous; it had solidified some of her other thoughts as well. "But I think it was worth it! Well, maybe not, but I think some good came of it!"
The anger on Willow's face melted into disbelief. "Good? Has this past three hands of days addled your brain? What can possibly be good about running off, messing with something dangerous, and then coming back to get your hide handed to you by the chief -- in front of everyone no less! Not to mention Notch and Foxtail's attitude about it all, like it was some game!"
Beetle’s arms crossed and she squeezed her chest, then let go again. "Well... I admit that the pranks were stupid and pointless, not to mention dangerous. And I definitely did not enjoy the consequences. But..." she paused, then turned back to face the river. "I really enjoyed the chance to observe the humans, and I probably never would have considered it if I hadn't overheard Foxtail and Notch talking that day. They were going to prank the humans, and when I found out about it, they asked me to go along to keep an eye out. Really, I wanted to be there in case something happened--I didn't want them to get hurt. But I also had the opportunity to observe and learn... and I took it. Willow, the humans that live so close to us aren't as bad as we've believed."
Beetle looked back at Willow with tears in her eyes. She half turned so that her back was no longer to Willow. "I wanted to tell you. I wish that I had.... It would have been nice to have you come along, and I bet you'd have enjoyed the pranks."
She hadn't answered Willow's question yet. Beetle sent, **The fight between you and Notch. I wasn't going to help them. I was going to talk with Windburn because it was dangerous, but… they offered an opportunity for me to learn, and… well, I wanted to learn. And I wanted them safe! I didn't want anyone hurt. It was also good to have Notch talking to me again! I knew that if I told you, you would have talked to Windburn.**
Finally, she added, "Looking back, I wish I had talked with you about it. I'm sorry, Willow."
Surprisingly, Willow's expression softened. She walked to Beetle and they sat down together next to the riverbank. They watched the water a while in silence.
Finally, Willow spoke, "I know you weren't taking sides with him. I know you love your brother, and I don't want what is happening between him and me to affect you. I would have gone, too, and he probably would have asked me if we'd been on better terms." She reached out and dipped a hand into the water. "It’s just I know he can be reckless, especially without me or Rainpace there to temper him some, and I wouldn't be happy if I found out something happened to you."
Beetle smiled at Willow's words. "If it had been you there, instead of me, I think we'd be having the same conversation. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you, either."
Willow looked sidelong at Beetle and managed a smile of her own. She pulled her hand from the river and shook it dry. “I'd have been fine,” she bragged, jokingly. “Who do you think used to watch out for Notch's skinny rear end when he got foolish notions in his head before we stopped talking to one another?” Then, she put that arm around Beetle and hugged her. “Just don't let him pull you into anything like that again. Not unless there's a better plan.”
Beetle laughed as she hugged Willow in return. "Right. Next time we'll both keep him out of trouble."
"Probably not," Willow said dismissively, leaning her head against Beetle's. "But next time I know you'll tell me."
Squeezing Willow a little, Beetle sighed happily. Knowing that nothing more needed to be said about her half-brother, Beetle changed the subject. “That was the longest three hands of days that I can remember. I missed you!”
That earned Beetle another sidelong look. Suddenly, Willow untangled her arms from around Beetle and gave her a shove that sent her tumbling into the river.
“I missed you, too, silly,” Willow grinned, then offered a hand to Beetle to help her out.
Beetle took it, pulled hard, and yanked Willow in with her!
Beetle’s peal of laughter was changed into a gurgle as Willow, who surfaced from below the water behind her, wrapped her arms around Beetle, and tried to dunk her. Beetle wriggled out of Willow’s arms and began splashing her friend.
“Beetle!” The sound of Beetle's name broke the reverie. Moss was standing on the riverbank, hands on hips. “There's no time for playing around. You're to help me scrape some new hides clean tonight.”
Beetle had known there would be work to do and even Moss’s disapproving look did not dampen her spirits. ‘At least he’s talking to me!’ “I’m coming!” Almost as an afterthought, she asked him, “Do I at least get to put on some dry clothes first?” He nodded, and she made her way out of the river and toward the Dentrees.
Turning back for a moment, she shot Willow an apologetic glance.
**Come see me in the morning, if you can,** Willow lock-sent to Beetle. **I'll ask Windburn if you can work with me some days, too.**
Beetle smiled in acknowledgement and then hurried back to the Holt. There would be a lot of hard work to do, but at least she could talk to her friends again.