(This story is a sequel to "Tangles", and is part of the "Romance between Beetle and Willow" storyline.)
Greenweave disappeared back toward the Holt after he'd left Willow sitting at the riverside with her hair unbound and after handing off his bone comb and a honeybee hair tie to Beetle. He had given a confusing message to his lifemate's daughter: “You'll be untangling something today, Beetle.”
But the nets, he said, would wait until later? 'What was Greenweave talking about?' Beetle wondered, 'Willow's hair?' Why did he want her to untangle Willow's hair?
Beetle glanced over at Willow, who seemed shocked that Greenweave had made that sudden announcement and had left them alone by the riverside.
“Uh,” the healer said, turning to look apologetically at her. “Sorry... I didn't know he'd ask you to do this. You don't have to if you don't want. I've put the braid back in myself before...”
Willow sounded nervous, but why?
Beetle was silent at first, trying to make sense of this puzzle. Then she quietly said, “Of course I want to. I’m not the best at it… but I can do it. Papa taught me. Let me get the knots out of your hair first.” She didn’t say anything else, but began gently working, in silence, to untangle Willow’s hair.
Beetle was not fast, but she was careful, not once pulling too hard. When she was through, she braided it. Finishing, she asked, “Do you have a hair tie?”
“Didn't Greenweave give you the one I gave him?”
Beetle looked around, then scooted her leg and saw the tie on the ground. “Oh! There it is!” She reached toward the ground and picked it up, observing it. Its craftsmanship reminded her of her brother. ‘Did they make up, or is this old? I haven’t seen it before!’ She commented, “Is this a new hair tie?”
“Yeah,” Willow said, “Notch gave it to me a while ago. We made up this morning.”
Beetle was surprised but happy to hear that Notch and Willow had made up. She wondered what had happened to precipitate the make-up, but what she said, without thinking, was, “Oh, that explains it.” As she used the bee-shaped hair tie to secure Willow’s hair, she felt sad, as if she were losing something precious. She expected that now that Willow and Notch had made up, Willow would be spending more and more time with him and that she and Willow, while they would continue to work together from time to time, would not be as close.
Tears pricked her eyes at the thought, and her stomach tied itself in knots. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ she asked herself. Taking a few controlled breaths and blinking back the tears, Beetle forced herself to relax. She was grateful Willow was still facing away from her. She was also glad that the healer was not currently touching her, or she’d have guessed that something was wrong.
Realizing what she had said, she explained, “I missed you last night, and I wondered where you were…. I’m glad you two made up.”
“It wasn't planned,” Willow answered. She sounded defensive. “I got tricked into it. Rainpace said he had a surprise in one of the old storage dens, and I never imagined I'd be fooled into a meeting with Notch. We got sealed in... I can't believe someone talked Evervale into that. But I had no choice but to try and work things out. I fell for one of the oldest tricks....” She paused for a moment, but not long enough for Beetle to respond, before she turned around and continued, “I didn't want to be there. I wanted to be there to meet you when you came back at dawn.”
Beetle’s heart fluttered a moment at Willow’s statement. She hoped that her face wouldn’t betray her emotions and that Willow wouldn’t see how she felt. She wanted Willow to remain friends with her, not to scare her off. She confessed, “I did miss you…” Her voice trailed off. “It was… different – your not being there when I got back.” Worried that Willow would take that the wrong way, she was quick to change the subject, “But I’m really glad you and Notch made up! I’m sorry you got trapped that way, though.”
Willow laughed and turned back around. “You should be glad you weren't there and weren't part of it. Rainpace's ears are probably still burning over some of the things I said to him when I found out what he did... and Notch... we yelled at each other until midday before we finally settled down and started talking. My throat still hurts. I'll have to think of a good way to thank those involved for that little setup, as soon as I figure out who they all are...”
Beetle smiled to herself at Willow’s words. She felt relieved that Willow hadn’t picked up on her double layer of feelings. Now that the braid was done, Beetle felt at a loss of what to do. Greenweave’s nets were still near the pair, and Beetle recalled him saying, “You'll be untangling something today, Beetle. Have at it, and we'll get to the nets later.” Wonderingly, she asked, “Any idea what Greenweave meant when he said I’d be untangling something? Your hair didn’t take long at all!”
“Uh,” Willow began, and Beetle saw her friend tense noticeably. “...Yeah, maybe my hair wasn't as bad as he thought it was. You'd think he thought it was going to take all night,” she finished, jokingly, then danced around any further answers. “What did One-Leg have you doing yesterday, anyway? Did he keep you out into the day, too? You're as red as his face gets when he's all worked up.” She turned around again and was smiling slightly. “I could soothe that sunburn really quick if you wanted me to...”
Beetle felt off-balance. Something about Willow’s response didn’t seem right, but Beetle shook it off. ‘I can’t project my feelings onto Willow.’ She answered Willow’s question. “The usual. We were finished before dawn, but when I got back, I wasn’t sleepy.” She knew that she wasn’t telling the whole truth, but she knew that she couldn’t give more details without giving too much away. “So I organized things in my den. After that, I still wasn’t sleepy, so I went and cleaned up some of my leathers. You know how grimy they were getting. Then, I stretched out on the shore to rest a little. But I guess I fell asleep. When I woke up, I was all pink.”
She held up her arms and laughed. “I wouldn’t say I was that red, though. Anyway… I don’t think a little sunburn will hurt me, but thanks.” In reality, she wanted nothing more than to feel the soothing balm of Willow’s hands, but she told herself she needed to be stronger than that. ‘I don’t want to take advantage of her – she’s more than just a healer. I’ve been burnt before without having a healer take care of me. And I don’t want to get too used to her being there all the time… now that she and Notch have made up.’
Too many thoughts were racing through her head, so she changed the subject. “Any idea how you’re going to get back at whoever tricked you into making up with Notch? I could help,” she suggested.
Beetle thought she saw Willow's shoulders sink as her friend turned back around, and the healer's tone was flat when she answered, “I'll have to think on it sometime when I'm not so tired. I didn't get much sleep today, either.” Willow pushed herself to her feet, like she intended to walk away, leaving Beetle suddenly and confusedly wondering what she had done to make Willow upset.
Then Willow stopped. She stood for long moments, unmoving, tense, her gaze seemingly focused on a spot in front of her that Beetle couldn't see. She didn't turn to face Beetle when she finally took a deep breath and asked, “Did... did you not want me to help you the other days, too? I didn't know I was pushing it on you – and I'm sorry. I should probably give you some more time to yourself instead of coming to pester you every morning.” Her voice sounded strained as she spoke.
Beetle’s heart plummeted at Willow’s suggestion, and she jumped to her feet, worried that Willow meant what she had said. Tears pricked her eyes at the idea that she wouldn’t get to see Willow that evening and at the idea of not seeing her as much. Willow wasn’t a bother. Willow meant… so much more to her than she did to Willow. Beetle wanted nothing more than to reach out to the healer, but she held herself back.
Willow began to walk away again.
At the risk of exposing her feelings, Beetle sent, **Of course I wanted your help the other nights! I... want your help tonight, too, really, I do. It’s just – I don’t want you to feel like I’m taking advantage of you, or like I only want you around because of your power. You’re not a pest to me, Willow. I like spending time with you.** In addition to what she said, she couldn’t help but include the sentiment really do want, please don't go away beneath the words. The other sentiment, the one beneath even those feelings was nervous, scared, haven’t felt this way before, not sure what to do.
She hoped that the depth of her feelings had not shown through. Willow was already upset with her, and Beetle didn’t want to give Willow more reason to leave. She added, **You’re more than just a healer to me, Willow.**
Willow stopped and turned to Beetle then. Beetle couldn't quite read the healer's expression, but her eyes seemed wet. Willow swallowed hard, then sent, **Do you really feel that way?** It was much more than a simple question. She sent that she had sensed the undertones beneath the words of Beetle's last sending; Beetle's secret had slipped out. Nervousness, confusion, worry underpinned Willow's mental voice as she added, with certainty, **Yes, you are special to me, I feel the same about you as you do about me, but swore I'd never get serious with anyone. Is becoming this serious – with me – something you really want?**
Stunned, Beetle wasn’t sure how to react. Willow’s response shocked her. ‘She feels that way? The same way? What now? I can’t lie about it.’ **Yes,** she finally responded. In that one word, eight eights that were not said managed to come through, like finding the core of a knot and untangling the whole thing. Don’t leave. I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t think you’d feel the same way. I didn’t want to lose you. And feeling, scared, thrilled, confused, amazed. Tentatively, Beetle reached out toward Willow, taking her hands in her own. **That’s what I want.**
Willow looked at Beetle, a serious expression on her face. Willow's hands squeezed hers. Beetle knew the healer was thinking – she'd seen that expression on Willow's face countless times over the past turn of the seasons. Then, Willow shook her head and closed her eyes. Her expression went from serious to almost pained-looking. Beetle's heart pounded in her chest, and she braced herself for the rejection she was beginning to suspect would follow.
But, suddenly, Willow wrapped her arms around Beetle, pulled her close, and held her fiercely. She sent, **Relief, acceptance, happiness, rightness. This is the way things should be. It's what I want, too.**
Shocked, Beetle was frozen, but only for a moment. Then the fear and tension melted away and Beetle was holding Willow just as tightly. There weren’t words to explain how she felt at the moment, but she sensed that none were needed. It was enough to know that Willow felt the same. She closed her eyes.
Long moments passed. Beetle was content to remain in Willow’s arms, and yet she knew that the longer she did, the more chances they had of being found this way – before they would have a chance to talk some more. Knowing herself, and knowing Willow, both needed freedom no matter how they felt. Still, she didn’t want to let go yet, either.
It was Willow who let go first, but Beetle could feel the slight hesitation as the healer released her. “Night's falling. I'm sure my standing here with you is just going to get you into trouble if too many people catch you not working. I should leave you for now.” She took a tentative step back. “I'll see you in the morning, provided certain friends don't pull any more dirty tricks on me again.”
The disappointment Beetle felt was only alleviated by the hope of seeing Willow again when her work was finished here. “I hope they don’t, but if they do, we’ll definitely have to come up with something to get back at them.” And she sent, **It’ll be a long night – wish I could spend it with you! At least I have the morning with you to look forward to.**
Willow reached out and gently brushed the side of Beetle's face with her fingertips. She smiled softly at Beetle, and Beetle realized how much she liked seeing Willow smile. **There are things we'll need to talk about,** Willow sent affectionately, **but they can wait. I'll be there tonight, I promise.**
She watched Willow depart. She was still in shock. She reviewed what had just happened in her mind. “That happened so quickly!’ she thought. ‘I hope this wasn’t a dream.’ She looked at her arms – they were no longer pink – and smiled. ‘It wasn’t a dream.’ Contentment filled her, and she turned to the nets Greenweave had left. Picking up the first net, she found a nearby rock to rest on while she worked. Working, and happier than she ever knew she could be, she sent to Greenweave, **I’m working on the nets now.**