(This story is a sequel to both "Longing in the Sun", and "The Setup", and is part of the "Romance between Beetle and Willow" storyline.)
Willow clutched the little clay bee-shaped hair tie tightly in her hand and felt its coolness against the skin of her palm. Notch had given her the little bauble just a while ago, and she'd been touched by the significance of the gift. After all, her charming bees was what had forged their friendship so long ago.
But that didn't change the fact that this whole past day was confusing, to say the least.
By all rights, she should be angry at her friends who had set her up to force her to make up with Notch the past morning. Notch had planned the whole scheme to get her alone in that old den during free-time from his punishment – the time he was usually asleep, and he'd enlisted an ensemble to help execute his plan. Rainpace had tricked her into the den, Evervale had sealed the den closed, and Willow thought she had heard Pathmark's snicker, too. There might have been others involved, too. Willow didn't know for sure.
She'd bide her time and figure out both who helped and a way to prank them all in return. But right now, revenge wasn't a priority. It was nice to be on speaking terms with Notch again. When he'd given her the hair tie he'd made it had felt good. She pondered his invitation to come share his den next dawn, which she had neither accepted nor declined. She needed to think about it some more.
Because... even though the day had turned out all right, Willow wasn't quite happy, and she couldn't quite put a finger on why. Things were going back to normal – at least to the normal Willow used to know. But why did it still feel like her making up with Notch wasn't quite right? Was it because of the circumstances under which the amends happened? Again, Willow felt she had the right to be angry about it. But, no, it wasn't that.
She was dead tired, too -- a result of not getting much sleep during the day -- but her mind was too busy to let her sleep.
She'd gone for a jump in the river instead, to cool off and mull things over, but being cold and dripping wet didn't seem to make her feel any better, either. When she had finished drip-drying and as she re-dressed herself, her mind kept going back to a single thought – that even though she had fun making up with Notch last night – a lot of fun – she still would have rather been with Beetle.
It started to worry her that she felt that way. Beetle was a good friend, just like Notch and Rainpace were, right? So why was she suddenly feeling so attached?
Admittedly, she had been spending a lot of time with Beetle lately. She'd developed a habit of waiting in Beetle's den when the sun was coming up so she'd be there when Beetle got back from her work-punishment for the day. And when Beetle did come home, Willow would spend time rubbing Beetle's back or using her powers to soothe whatever sore muscles Beetle had earned that day from her time of hard labor. Beetle usually fell asleep quickly after Willow started, but that was all right. Willow enjoyed lying next to Beetle and listening to her breathing until she fell asleep, too. When evening came, Beetle would need to be up early for whatever work they had for her next. Willow would see Beetle off with a silent promise to herself that she'd be back when the sun was up to meet her again.
It bothered Willow that she hadn't been there this morning. It wasn't her fault; she knew that. But had she really become so attached? She didn't even need to ask that to know she had. But what did that mean? Was it time to reconsider what she had been doing? It worried her even more when something pricked the back of her mind, telling her she would deeply miss her daily visits with Beetle if they were to stop.
If Beetle knew about these feelings of attachment, what would she think? Beetle had an experience in the past with Pathmark when their relationship grew serious and it shouldn't have. And Willow had always vowed she'd never be serious with anyone. Period. Getting serious just complicated things. That was a strict philosophy Notch had ground into her head since she was young, and it was a wise one. Being serious had risks. It made you responsible for someone else. It could tie you down. Willow was struggling hard enough with the fear her healing powers would get in the way of keeping her freedom, as it was.
Willow slapped at the water at the river's edge and growled. Why was her head in such a weird place this evening? She didn't like it. Was it due to lack of sleep?
She vowed then and there she'd keep her feelings to herself. Getting serious with anyone would complicate things. It would tie her down. She didn't need her life to be even more difficult than it already was at the moment.
So maybe, she decided as a painful afterthought, it was probably good to give Beetle a few more nights to herself. Willow had to get herself past this and move on.
She tried her best to push the jumble of confusing thoughts out of her head and decided to go see if Greenweave was busy. She pulled the old, frayed hair tie out of the bottom of her braid and went to search him out. Might as well have him re-braid it while it was still wet. Besides, the braid was coming unbound and needed to be re-done, and she did have this new hair tie.
Plus, things were always so laid-back with Greenweave. Maybe a calm presence was what she needed to get out of this weird headspace and let her thoughts get back to normal.
After a short while of searching, Willow spied Greenweave by the river with a mass of tangled fishing nets at his feet and called out to him as she approached, “Hey, Greenweave, you busy?”
“Just getting these nets ready for Beetle when she wakes up,” he replied. “She's mine today, and I'm going to put her to work untangling them.”
“Oh,” Willow said, stopping short, mostly at the mention of Beetle's pending arrival. “Well, if you're busy, you can do my braid another time.”
Greenweave smiled at her. “Nonsense! I've got time for that. Sit down.” He retrieved a bone comb from his belt-pouch and looked at Willow expectantly.
How could Willow say no? She couldn't think of a good excuse to refuse now, so she sat and made herself comfortable. She wondered if Beetle would arrive before Greenweave had finished with her hair. Maybe coming here had been a mistake.
Greenweave started undoing the old braid. “So, you going to let me do something different with your hair today?”
“Are you sure? You've got the perfect set-up for curls now, you know... your hair is still wet enough to where we could wrap it around some reeds and they'd be dry and ready by the time the moons were high.”
Willow laughed, “Curls? Are you serious? I'd rather cut my hair short again than do that.”
“All right. No curls. But a ribbon of dyed websilk, maybe?” he teased. “We could tie two wolf-tails high up on either side, and maybe weave a few shiny baubles in here and there--”
“Ugh, no!” Willow twisted around so she could look Greenweave in the eye and grinned widely. “Not getting your fix from experimenting with Cloudfern's hair, or something?”
Greenweave feigned pain. “That was a barb to the heart.” Willow guffawed and turned around again, and Greenweave ran his fingers through the loose strands of her hair as though he were still pondering the possibilities of the styles he could do with it. Then, he sighed. “All right, just the braid, then. But maybe you'll try something different sometime?” He changed the subject. “Hrm. You've lost your hair tie. What kind do you want for a new one?” He rummaged through his always-handy supply of ties in his belt-pouch. “I've got some green, a blue, a brown one that would match--”
“I have a new one for you to use,” Willow interrupted, and held up her hand with the new honeybee-shaped tie in it. Greenweave took it.
“This is nice! Make it yourself?”
“No, Notch gave it to me.”
“Notch? The two of you on better terms now?”
Willow guessed the news of the day's 'forced visit' must not have circulated around the Holt yet. It was still early, after all. Most of the tribe was probably still asleep. “Uh... Yeah, we made up this morning.”
“You don't sound so pleased about that.”
Willow blinked. She didn't? Willow hadn't paid attention to what tone she had used. “Oh, no, I am happy about it. It's good not to be at each other's throats all the time.”
“But?” Greenweave paused in his work removing the braid, waiting for Willow to continue.
“There has to be a 'but' there. You don't look or sound like you've made up with one of your best friends.”
“I am happy we made up. But maybe I wish it had been under different circumstances.”
“One where I wasn't forced into a small area to talk to him, maybe? I had other things I wanted to do when the sun came up.”
“I see,” Greenweave said. Something about his tone made Willow think he was going to continue, but he didn't. Instead, he went back to removing the braid, and quickly finished. “We should probably let your hair dry some so it won't sour when I put it up.”
“All right.” Willow folded her arms in her lap. She shook her head from side to side. It felt so different not having the weight of the long braid there.
“You know, you could leave your hair down. It would look nice down, now that it's so long.”
“No, it'll get in my face and I'll have tangles for sure if I do that.”
“You have tangles now. You really should tend to your hair more often if you don't want to deal with tangles.”
“I know. I just get busy.”
Greenweave hrrmphed at that pitiful excuse and started combing Willow's hair, gently trying to remove what snarls he had found. Some of them, unfortunately, were quite stubborn.
“Ow,” Willow mumbled.
“Your own fault,” Greenweave chided. “Really, how many times do I have to tell you that the longer you go without taking care of your hair, the more tangled it will get?”
“I know, I know,” Willow said good-naturedly, although she knew she probably hadn't learned her lesson.
Greenweave finally coaxed out that snarl, and went on to the next. “So, what other plans did you have for the morning if you hadn't been paired up with Notch?” Greenweave asked as he slowly worked at the next knot.
Willow's brows lowered. “You're full of questions this evening.”
“So, they were secret plans?”
“I was going to say, if you think no one sees you go to Beetle's den, you're fooling yourself.”
Willow didn't answer, and Greenweave kept working. Then, he said, “Miss seeing her last night, did you?” That made Willow tense up, and made Greenweave take pause. “Hey, relax. What's got into you?”
“Nothing,” Willow said, even though she knew it wasn't the truth.
“Nothing my foot,” Greenweave replied, leaning forward so he could see the side of her face. Willow looked sideways at him. Was he smiling? “Something wrong with missing Beetle?”
“No. Yes.” High Ones, what was she saying!? “I don't know!” Willow blurted then, feeling her frustration rise again. “Maybe there is,” she said defensively.
Greenweave sat back. “Then tell me what you think might be wrong, and I'll tell you if I think it is wrong.”
Willow paused. She didn't really want to continue this line of conversation. But something about the dead, uncomfortable silence that followed made Willow want to fill it with something. “If I do, will you promise not to tell anyone?”
“You have my word.”
Willow thought for a moment. She wasn't sure she could even put into words what was going through her mind. “All right. It's just... I...” she couldn't find the right words, so she sent. **Confused, everything's been changing for so long, nothing is like it used to be, not sure why I feel this way, not sure how she would feel about it, not sure what effects it would have on everything if I did say something...**
“Nothing's wrong with any of that. I think you should tell her,” Greenweave said, after barely a moment's pause.
Willow growled in frustration. That definitely wasn't the response she wanted to hear! “What if it's just me being overly-appreciative of how she's helped me over the past few moons? That has to be what it is! What if I ruin our friendship? She'll think I'm just getting clingy and I'll end up looking stupid. See? Even thinking about getting serious just complicates things.”
“Sometimes getting serious makes things easier, too. Have you ever considered that?”
“Well, no... And I don't see how it would.”
“What if she feels the same as you do? Wouldn't you want to know? What if she's worried about the same things you are?”
“Wouldn't she have said something?”
“You don't seem to want to say anything.”
Willow was silent. She didn't know how to respond to that.
“There is only one way to find out,” Greenweave prodded. “Tell her.”
“But what if she does feel the same way? What about my other friends?”
Greenweave laughed as if that question was the most absurd one he had ever heard. “What about them? They'll still be there, being your friends, of course. Nothing will change that. It didn't change anything by your telling me, did it?”
Willow shook her head, but she still wasn't convinced she should say anything at all.
There were footsteps behind them then, and Willow knew it was Beetle before she even arrived. Had she heard any of the conversation? Badger's blood, Willow hoped not! Her heart leaped up into her throat.
Beetle stopped in front of them. “I'm ready to work, Greenweave,” Beetle said, and then turned to Willow. “Hi, Willow,” she said with the hint of a smile.
“Hey,” Willow said, and couldn't help but return the smile. It really was good to see Beetle, and good that she didn't seem angry about leaving her alone, at least. But wait – was Beetle sunburned? Willow suddenly felt even worse for not being able to meet Beetle last night.
“You'll be untangling something today, Beetle,” Greenweave announced. Then, he stood and held the comb and the honeybee hair tie out to Beetle. “Have at it, and we'll get to the nets a little later.”
Beetle looked surprised as she took the two items, and Willow gaped as Greenweave turned and walked away.
**Tell her,** Greenweave sent to Willow, and then he said no more.