(This story is a companion piece to "Longing in the Sun", and is also related to the "Willow Healer Storyline" and the "Romance between Beetle and Willow"storyline - see listings for more related stories.)
“What's so important in that old den that you need me to help you get it?” Willow asked.
“You'll see it when we get in there.”
“Did you just put it in there, or something? Seriously, that storage den's been empty since late winter. There's nothing in there.”
Rainpace didn't reply.
The pair descended down the Mother Tree's interior stairs to the Holt's underground level and made their way toward a storage den below the Father Tree.
“You couldn't have asked someone else to help?” she half-whispered to Rainpace. “Really, the sun's coming up, and I have somewhere I need to be this morning.” She had planned to meet Beetle when she came back from working with One-Leg at Hidden Lake. She might already have missed her friend as it was.
“It won't take long,” Rainpace promised. They had reached the den, and Rainpace tipped his head at the entrance. “After you.”
Something didn't seem quite right. Willow gave Rainpace a suspicious look, then ducked cautiously inside. It was too dark to see anything. The moonmoss that normally lit the storage den had been removed. She was about to turn to Rainpace and ask what was going on when a shape moved in the den's corner.
Notch stepped out of the shadows and into the thin light entering the den. He looked aghast. “I was supposed to wait here for her?! You've got to be kidding me!”
Willow's jaw dropped. “What in the name of Mother Moon is he doing here?!” Then, suddenly, it clicked. Her suspicions had been correct. This had been a trap – a setup. Willow, quite stupidly, had fallen for one of the oldest tricks. “Oh no!” she cried, “I'm not talking to that low-life piece of wasted meat. Not if my life depended on it!”
She cursed at her lack of brains and quickly whirled toward the exit, when suddenly a glowing, swirling mass of wood and bark blocked her path. The den was quickly being sealed closed – too quickly for Willow to try and bolt outside!
“Oh, you'll talk to each other, all right!” Rainpace called from the other side of the growing wall. “There are quite a few of us who are tired of hearing you badmouth each other all the time.” There was a certain edge of glee to is voice, and the reasoning behind it became apparent when Willow caught a brief glimpse of Evervale sealing the den before the opening shrank enough to block her from view. The plantshaper looked nervous. “You'll talk all day, if you have to! We're not going to let you out until you do!”
“You dung-eating son of a white-stripe!” Notch swore. “Oh, you just wait, Rainpace. You'd best watch your back after this. You just remember you have to sleep sometime, and when you do, I'll be waiting for you!”
“You'll have to beat me to him, quill-rot!” Willow said to Notch just as vehemently. She then directed her attention to Evervale. “And don't think I'm going to forget about this, either, plantshaper! Back off right now or—”
“Or what?” Rainpace interrupted, answering for Evervale. “You're not in the position to be making demands or threats, either of you! So make up... or kill each other... either way works for us, as long as you stop bellyaching about each other all the time. You're not going to get out until you do something.”
Willow and Notch both lashed out at Rainpace and his fellow perpetrators then. They heaped insult upon insult on them, calling them everything from scat-faced stinkbear to limp-membered near-wolf, until the den was mostly sealed. Only a small, arm-sized opening was left for air to filter in. It was hot and humid, and the musty smell within the old den made Willow's nose burn. Then, a small hole was opened above that let in more air and a little bit of daylight.
The others outside walked away, despite Willow's continued protests. She was trapped here. With him.
The killing portion of Rainpace's suggestion was sounding very, very tempting at the moment.
Willow and Notch sat for a good, long while in silence, glaring like two wolves sizing one another up before a challenge.
Willow's eyes narrowed. She wanted Notch to blink first – she could see light reflecting from his eyes in the meager luminance that filtered into the room. She set her teeth into a snarl. She was not going to talk to him.
Notch moved first, which set satisfaction rising in Willow's gut. If she had to stay cooped up with him in here, she'd show him who was the dominant wolf. Feeling confident, she took a step toward Notch.
“Oh no, you stay on your side of the den, rockfist,” he snapped. “I'm not going to risk your punching me in the face again.”
“What, afraid?” Willow sneered, taking a threatening step closer to him. “You always were the greasy little cub, running away when you got into trouble. Never were able to face your problems like anything besides a toothless whelp.”
“And who's talking about running here, you two-faced sackful of dung? This past whole turn you've been running like a wolf with its tail between its legs! If anyone should be accused of running away, it's you.”
Willow's eyes narrowed at that accusation. “I haven't run for a good, long while. I've been busy, unlike some other people who took the time to find trouble and pull others, kicking and screaming, into the din with them. Did it feel good to drag your own sister into that whole mess at the human camp?”
“She went because she wanted to!”
“And I'm sure you sweetened the deal to make it irresistible to her, too.”
A grin crept across Notch's face. “Oh... You're jealous that I didn't ask you, aren't you? Well, I didn't need you.”
“If you had asked me, I would have told you what a stupid plan it was, so it's good you didn't!”
“Liar. You're puffed up like a game bird, but you're not fooling me.” He leaned toward Willow. “It hurts to not be wanted, doesn't it?”
Willow growled. Notch got the one-up on her there. “And you told me Blacksnake would be the one to twist the dagger when he stuck it in my back.”
“Well, get used to the sting, Wil'. I'm sure you'll feel it again. Like I said, I don't need you.”
“Bah!” Willow spat, “I don't need you either, you maggot-covered piece of meat! I didn't need you when you were chasing me around my den like a wolf in heat. I got through that rough patch fine without any help from you. And I don't need you now!”
“That?! Again with that rotten piece of offal?!” Notch bellowed in a fashion that might have rivaled his father. Willow guessed she'd hit on a sore spot. Good. Let him writhe in pain a little bit. “Why does it always come back to that? How many times do I have to say I'm sorry in order for it to get through your thick-boned head?”
“Until I believe you mean it!”
“I have meant it, all along! But since you keep acting like you have piss for brains, there's no point in repeating myself! You. Won't. LISTEN!”
Willow crossed her arms, feeling suddenly victorious. “And you called me two-faced before! Ha!”
“You are two-faced!”
Willow leaned close, until she was almost nose-to-nose with her former best friend. “And. So. Are. You. When did you ever listen to me? When did you stop torturing me when, night after night, I told you to stop? When I beat you over your High Ones'-forsaken head with what I'd been trying to tell you for days, that's when! And then you thought I was stupid enough that your walking around behind me with pup-eyes was enough to make me forgive you? Never mind the fact that you tried to make me look like a fool in front of the whole tribe by telling me Blacksnake was going to stab me in the back when I least expected it! Well, who ended up the piss-brain then, Notch? Wasn't me!”
“And you still think that snaggle-toothed old badger is worth the time you give him, don't you?” Notch's tone had quieted some.
“I don't think it. I know it. He helped me when one of my best friends let me down. He's still helping me now. At the very least, he doesn't go for my throat every time he sees me, like you do!”
Notch snarled in frustration. Willow could feel the heat of his breath. “I didn't want to let you down! Don't you see!? I felt badly for you when I found out what was happening to you. But I didn't know everything that was going on! How could I, when you would never talk to me? To me! I'm supposed to be your friend! All our lives we've been able to talk to each other, Willow. We could tell each other anything, but this time, for High Ones-know-what reason, you clam up. You ran away from me. How was I supposed to know what was happening to you? And when I finally figured it out, you wouldn't let me close enough to do anything about it.”
He sent then, dredging up memories of this past New Green Bliss, and of all the trouble he had gone to to try to think of some way to make that evening enjoyable for her again; of the solution he had come upon that didn't involve touching her, but that he hadn't been able to use. He sent of how badly he'd felt that the whole mess had gotten so far out of hand, and of the disappointment he'd felt when he hadn't been able to even just talk to her that night and admit how inadvertently horrible he had been to her.
“And even after that,” he continued, speaking now instead of sending, “you wouldn't talk to me, until I stepped in front of you and tried to drag the words out of you. Even then, you hit me and kept on running. And now, when we're holed up together like this, when I try and talk to you, you shut me out and refuse to accept that I'm really sorry. I might as well be pissing into the wind for all it comes back to me. I give up. You win. I'm walking away.”
With a growl, he turned around, walked back to the corner he'd been in when Willow first entered the den, and sat down defeatedly. “I'm tired of this. I'm tired of being angry at you. I'm tired of trying to get you to forgive me. If you don't want to believe me, then fine. Believe whatever you want. I'm done. I'm going to wait here until they let us out. We can stay out of each other's way after that, for the sake of our friends.”
What Notch said brought Willow up short. Notch was giving up? He never gave up, unless he had something else planned. But there wasn't anything else, was there? Her instincts told her there was not.
Had she really been that unfair to him? She had never seen it that way before, but it was a lot more clear since Notch had laid it out so neatly. Maybe... Notch wasn't the only one who had been wrong. Maybe there was truth to what he had said.
It was hard to say the next words that came out of her mouth. She didn't want to say them, because it bothered her to realize she'd been just as bone-headed as Notch had been. She didn't like being wrong. She took a deep breath.
Notch answered her with silence.
“Notch, I'm sorry.”
“It's too late for apologies now. I'm through with you.”
That hurt. A lot. Was he really through with her, like he said? He didn't want anything to do with her? A feeling of disconnect slammed into her like she'd run headlong into a tree. There really was no turning back now. An overwhelming sense of loss welled up in her, worse than anything she'd felt when even the closest of her wolf-friends had died. She felt defeated, like a shagback had trampled her into the ground.
She had taken this too far. She had only wanted Notch to prove that he was really sorry. She never wanted to lose his friendship!
A last bit of fight rose in her in the next moment. It couldn't be over, just like that! There had to be some way to fix this! She walked across the room to where he was sitting and started talking. “No. You're right. I didn't listen. I didn't give you a chance. I didn't run away... I pushed you away because I was angry that you didn't listen, and I ended up doing the same thing I accused you of doing. You're right. I was wrong. I'm sorry.”
She crouched down in front of him, trying to look him in the eye. He didn't move. She saw, in the dim light, that he was staring straight ahead, past her, looking as angry as he had before. Had she really pushed this past a point of no return? She was crushed.
Willow pressed again, “So it really is too late for me to say I'm sorry?”
“No,” Notch finally said, and a smirk grew on his face. “But it really hurts when you think it is, doesn't it?”
“Oh, you slug-covered fleabag!” Willow said, punching Notch playfully in the shoulder. “Fine. It does hurt. A lot. I felt like I lost a part of me, if it makes you feel any better.” She looked him in the eye again, and this time, his gaze met hers. She sat down. “Do you accept my apology? I'm sorry, I really am.”
“I do, but only if you accept mine, too. I'm sorry, too. I just wish you'd have talked, or I'd have figured things out sooner, or something so it didn't have to come to this.”
Relieved, Willow sighed and sat back. “Me too. Let's not do that again. And I accept.”
Both of them sat quietly for a few moments, then Notch asked, “So, when do you think they'll come back and let us out?”
“I don't know. What time of day do you think it is?”
Notch got up, walked over to the air-hole overhead, and peered out. “Sun looks high. Mid-day, maybe?”
Willow puffed out air. “Heh. Bet they're all asleep and it'll be near nightfall before they get back.”
“Are you sleepy?” She saw Notch turn back toward her.
“Not in the least.”
Notch sighed, “Me either.” Then, he went back to the corner and sat down. “They could at least have left us some food or water in here. I'm starving.”
“I didn't get a chance to eat, either.” Willow leaned back against the den's wall.
They sat in silence for a long while, listening to the sounds of each others' stomachs growling. Willow sighed. It was going to be a long, boring afternoon.... unless...
“Hey,” Willow said as she scooted over so she was sitting next to Notch. She leaned against him. “You know, I've found out some pretty interesting things to do with my powers...”
“Oh?” Notch asked, genuinely curious. He put his arm around her shoulder. “Like what?”
“Well, I could show you...”
Willow saw a sly grin creep up on Notch's face in the half-light as he answered, “I'd like that a lot.”
Willow was hot, sweaty, and half-dozing with her arms and legs still tangled with Notch's when the sound of voices and a rush of fresh air roused her.
“Oh yeah, they've made up. No doubt about it.” That was Rainpace's voice. There was more than one chuckle, a snicker, and a guffaw in response to what he said. Who else was out there?
Willow opened her eyes, blinked and saw Rainpace's figure in the den's re-shaped entranceway. Notch was snoring, sound asleep, and Willow elbowed him sharply in the ribs to get him to wake up.
“Sun'll be setting in a little while, lovebirds!” Rainpace chortled at them. “Time to get dressed and go about your evening.”
Both Willow and Notch rose, got dressed, and ducked out of the den. Whoever had been with Rainpace when the den was opened had scattered. Rainpace stood outside the storage den, alone.
“Don't think you're going to get away with what you did just because Notch and I made up,” Willow whispered to Rainpace as she walked past him. “You'd best watch your tail.”
Rainpace laughed, unfazed by Willow's threat. “Whatever you can dish out will be worth the price paid for the peace!” As he walked away, she sensed something pass between Rainpace and Notch. A sending. Suddenly, Willow got the feeling that locking them in that den wasn't just Rainpace's idea.
Willow shook her head. “Why, you son of a coyote,” she muttered under her breath. She'd been doubly tricked! But she decided, for now, not to complain. She couldn't, not with this outcome.
She shook her head again and turned to walk away, when Notch tapped her on the shoulder and held out his hand. He had something closed within his fist.
“What's this?” Willow asked, reaching out to take what Notch offered.
“Something for you. A make-up gift.”
It was a hair tie with a bee-shaped bauble attached to it that had been shaped from clay. He'd made this for her? She found herself feeling very touched at the token.
“Thanks...” Willow said, taken off guard again. She wasn't sure what else to say.
Notch didn't seem to be expecting any kind of a response. Instead, he asked, “Want to come to my den in the morning?”
“Hrm.” Willow found she wasn't sure. “I'll think about it. I'll let you know.”
“Fair enough,” came Notch's reply. “I've got to go get to work soon, and I need to find something to eat. Catch you later, runt?”
“Oh, I'm sure I'll see you soon, fleabag,” Willow answered with a smirk. Notch laughed.
It was good to be friends again.