(This story is part of the "Romance between Beetle and Willow" storyline.)
Beetle wearily crawled beneath the furs and took deep breaths trying to calm herself. She had had a very long day, and she was exhausted, but something was wrong. Rather — someone was missing. When she’d returned from Hidden Lake earlier that same morning, she’d been looking forward to seeing Willow, to talking with her. But Willow hadn’t been there. She hadn’t been in her own den, either. She waited a while, thinking that maybe Willow was watching the sunrise somewhere with someone else. Finally, when she guessed that Willow was not returning that day, Beetle returned to her den.
She lay with her back to the wall, facing the entrance. It was strange, being there without Willow. After the shunning ended, they had made it a point to meet up at the end of Beetle’s workday. They’d talk, and Willow would rub her back, soothing tired muscles, and talk with her. Sometimes, Beetle would fall asleep in the middle of the conversation, but other days, there would be joining. Thinking on it, it was that way even before the shunning. Beetle chided herself for growing to expect Willow to be there.
She tried to relax. A part of her hoped that Willow would slip in quietly, expecting to find Beetle asleep. Another part of her was filled with confusion because she wanted to cry. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ she asked herself.
She was unable to sleep and her heart had her stomach tied in knots. Breathing deeply wasn’t working, nor was any other relaxation technique she knew. Finally, she sat back up. ‘If I can’t sleep, at least I can take some time to organize.’ She hadn’t had time since the shunning ended. Every night, from the time she woke until the time she returned to go to sleep, she was working. Now that she couldn’t sleep, she could at least clean a little.
She started by shaking out the bed furs. She’d considered carrying them out and truly cleaning them, but beating a hanging fur with a stick would surely cause a few others to wake up. Then someone might ask her why she wasn’t sleeping. She didn’t want to give anyone cause to think that One-Leg hadn’t worked her hard enough. He had! She also didn’t want to talk with anyone about what she was truly feeling.
‘I miss Willow,’ she thought. ‘And I’m not sure what that means. Why should I miss her? Just because she’s become one of my closest friends? Well… that doesn’t give me claim to her or anything. True, we’ve spent a lot of time together, and she’s been spending almost every day with me recently, but that doesn't mean it will always be that way! One of these days she and Notch will make up, and then I'm sure he'll want to help her more, too. Just because I miss her when she's gone doesn't mean that she feels the same way.’
She’d finished with the furs and moved on to her shelves. There was an assortment of thunderbird eggs, rocks, and even some sea shells. Small bags of different spices and powders were on another shelf. She knew what was in them by scent, but she wanted them organized so that it was more neat in her tiny den.
Working was helping her head clear a little, and she was slowly coming to an astonishing conclusion. ‘I feel differently about Willow! She’s not just a friend to me anymore.’ Finally honest with herself, Beetle’s heart skipped a beat, then settled back into rhythm. She hadn’t realized it was beating faster. Some of the tension she was feeling also started to ebb.
She turned to a basket of clothes. The work she had been doing for others was not always easy, and sometimes it left her downright dirty. She was down to her last pair of leggings and poncho. She knew that Greenweave was going to have her working for him the next day, and she guessed that she would be working to untangle some nets. ‘Depending on the net, that can be dirty work.’ It wasn't as bad as tanning, but the grit and grime could be more than she liked. She decided she needed to clean up the clothing in the basket and give it a day to dry. ‘Then I’ll have something to wear the next day that isn’t covered in grit and grime and smelling of fish or worse."
Picking up the basket and a few bowls, she quietly made her way out of her den, and down the steps. She headed to a storage den to get a few jars of clay. She grabbed three jars of dyed clay. She added the jars to her basket, then continued on toward the river.
She headed downriver a little, to where there were some good rocks for leaning the clothes on. She pulled out a poncho, a bowl, and a jar of red-dyed clay from the basket and got to work. She removed some of the clay and set it in the bowl. Adding some water until it was the right mixture, she began working the clay onto the leather.
The sun was high overhead, and Beetle was sweating by the time she finished working on the first item. She removed her clothing, stepped into the water, and took a dip, cooling herself off. She then continued her work, taking a dip in between each article of clothing. As she finished applying the clay, she would set the item on the bank and take up a new one. As she finished working with each color, she made certain to rinse out her bowl and to seal up the jar of clay.
When she was finished, Beetle still wasn’t ready to return to her den. She stretched out on the shore, basking in the warmth of the sunlight. She remembered a conversation that had occurred a handful of days ago.
They were finishing up their work at Hidden Lake, and Beetle was hurrying to clean up for the night. She was happy to be done for the day, and she was looking forward to returning to the Holt.
One-Leg commented, “Must be nice to have a Healer waiting to tend your tired muscles every night.”
She was caught off-guard. “What do you mean?”
“Do you really think that no one notices you and Willow are together almost every night now?”
She blushed a little. “It’s not like that.”
“Like what?” he’d asked, smiling.
Flustered, she’d responded more defensively than was warranted by his teasing. “We’re just friends.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” he’d mumbled, mirth showing in his eyes. “And I’m a shellback's grandsire."
It was good to see him smiling, but she didn’t like that his speculations were the cause. “You can think what you want, but it’s true.” She almost stamped her foot for emphasis, but she didn’t want to seem like a child. She sent, **It’s true! Willow and I are friends. Nothing more.**
“I call ‘em like I see ‘em, Beetle. I’d wager there’s more to your sending than you realize.”
She had ignored his statement, but she could not ignore it any longer. There had been something more to her sending. A belief that it had to be true, regardless of her feelings on the matter. ‘Willow doesn’t want more than just a friend. I don’t want to lose our friendship over this.’
Recalling the time she and Pathmark had tried lovemating, Beetle felt lucky that it had ended as well as it did. ‘I didn’t lose his friendship, but… Willow’s not Pathmark. And it’s not worth the risk… I can’t tell her how I feel because… well, she wouldn’t feel the same way, and then it would be awkward. It’s not worth losing the friendship over.’
Feeling decided on the matter, Beetle started to think about returning to her den. Before she could, she’d fallen asleep.
The sun was starting to set, and the air was cooler now. Beetle woke up shivering a little. ‘How long did I sleep here?’ she wondered. Her eyes felt blurry. She reached up to rub them and noticed that her arms and hands were pink. “Sunburned,” she groaned.
She looked around. The area she’d been sleeping in had been covered by shade for a long while. ‘At least I didn’t choose a sunnier spot. Then I’d be really red!’
She picked up the clothing she had lain out and put it in the basket. She'd brush the clay off later. Adding the bowls and jars to her basket, she headed back to the holt. When she returned to her den, Beetle considered crawling between the furs again, hoping to get a little more sleep before it was time to work.
‘Greenweave’s probably up already. I’d better head back to the river,’ she decided, guessing he'd be there, already up. She looked wearily toward her empty bed. The combination of sore muscles, sunburn, and empty bed furs reminded her again of Willow’s absence. ‘You’ve been sore, sunburned, and slept by yourself many times before. This is no different,’ she told herself as she turned to leave. ‘This is what I should be feeling.’ She pushed aside the longing for Willow and left her den.