(This story is a direct sequel to "Morning After", and is part of the "Brightwood emerges from wrapstuff, and Aftermath" and the Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing storylines-- see listings for related stories.)
RTH 2503.07.14, dawn
“After the send-sharing that the elders are planning, you’ll need the time to think over what you’ll learn. So, when we are finished with the sending, I will let the tribe know that you are to be shunned for a hand of days — with no word or send, or touch or glance from your tribemates. And when you rejoin us,” Windburn finished, “maybe you’ll have thought of a way to begin mending the trust you’ve broken.”
Windburn's words hit Willow as if he'd swung a club that connected squarely with her midsection, and they deflated any sense of self-satisfaction she'd felt like a punctured water-bladder. Even the words of support One-Leg had bellowed in her favor had little weight now as seeds of thought about what was to come over the next few days planted themselves in Willow's mind. It did not matter that Brightwood and the baby were alive. It did not matter that she had pushed her powers harder than she ever had before to reunite Farscout and Cloudfern with family that had long been lost to them. It was clear — clear as a still stream on a windless day — that nothing mattered right now save that she had done what they felt had been wrong.
She hadn't done this to hurt anyone. She had done this to help — to help both Brightwood, and to help herself. Shouldn't this have been something where both sides had won? Brightwood and the child were safe, and Willow should have been free of the tremendous pressure and lack of freedom she had felt while others waited for her to open those cocoons. But, no, both sides were hurting. She couldn't understand why so many were angry with her. And she didn't understand why anything related to her healing powers seemed to leave everyone feeling worse off than when she began healing them.
She still felt, deep down, that she had been right, despite what they were telling her, and despite the dread that was now blanketing everything. But, she also knew there was no point in trying to argue anymore. Willow looked down at her blood-encrusted hands and her ratty, unbound hair as her grandmother's arm tightened around her shoulders. A wave of exhaustion she had been holding back during the whole previous discussion about her fate washed over her. Mixed feelings of anger and uselessness followed.
Then, she took a deep breath and planted her feet firmly beneath her to stand up on shaking legs. “I'm going to my den,” she announced, speaking more suddenly than she would have liked. Kestrel hastily offered to accompany her, but Willow politely shook her head. She might be defeated, but she would show that she was, at least, capable of leaving the room on her own, and held her head high as she walked to the door.
As she approached the entrance, she felt a hand reach out and take hers. She paused mid-step and gazed down. Beetle, who sat with Pathmark near the den's entrance, looked up into her eyes.
Beetle squeezed Willow's hand and sent, **Here for you. I… would go with you if you want me to.**
At that, Willow looked away and let Beetle's hand go. “No. Not now,” she said quickly, then ducked outside. If she stayed there any longer, she knew she would break down — and that was the last thing she wanted everyone to see her do.
...she nearly ran into Notch, who was standing just outside the doorway. He looked her up and down. “You look like something Beauty chewed up and spat back out,” he said, surely trying to get a laugh out of her. But Willow didn't laugh. Instead, she looked down and away and tried to edge her way past him.
Notch wouldn't let her go. He put a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “I know you don't really want to be alone.”
Notch was right. Willow offered no resistance when her friend pulled her close and hugged her or when he took her hand and walked her to his den.
Beetle wanted nothing more than to curl up into a ball and cry, but she wouldn't. Not here. Not now. She would have felt lost if it had not been for Pathmark, who reached an arm around her and pulled her close. **It will be all right, I know it will. Willow just needs some time.**
The tears she had been holding back burst forth from behind her closed eyelids, and she sniffled. **I know. Hopeless, though. Want to be there for her, and she won't let me close. Maybe never will.**
Pathmark put a finger under Beetle's chin and lifted her head so that their eyes would meet. **She will,** he sent. The confidence he had was unwavering, and it calmed Beetle's aching heart enough that she managed a weak smile.
Beetle was conscious of One-Leg looking her way. **I'll be fine,** she sent to him, mustering as much hope as she could.
**Aye,** One-Leg replied, **Soon as your lovemate gets the burr from out of her butt and remembers you're there for her. Or maybe you just need to remind her.**
Beetle thought about it, nodded, then allowed Pathmark to pull her up and lead her out of the den. When they got into the open, Willow was nowhere to be seen.
Willow was silent as Notch led her to his bed platform. When she sat, he took a thick bedfur and wrapped it around her shoulders.
As he was about to sit down next to her, a shadow fell over the doorway. Foxtail peeked inside. “You found her?” She peered around the room and spied Willow in her recently-taken seat. “Oh, good.” She strode across the room and sat next to Willow on the healer's right. “You wouldn't believe the rumors flying around the Holt. What's happening?”
“I didn't overhear much,” Notch answered, and took a seat to Willow's left. “My father bellowing some. Windburn mentioning something about shunning, and some kind of send-sharing?”
“They all think what I did was wrong.” Willow finally said, her voice sounding as tired and haggard as she felt. She really didn't want to go into details about what was to come when the moons next rose.
Foxtail took Willow's hand in hers. “Maybe wrong the way you went about it... but Brightwood and the baby are safe, aren't they?”
“Well, that should count for something, anyway!” Foxtail said. “You know, sometimes I wish my father was capable of seeing all sides of the situation, and not just the one he thinks is right. Really, I'm not sure how two punishments are entirely fair.”
Notch crossed his arms. “If Windburn would have listened, this could have ended a lot differently.”
Willow closed her eyes and said nothing. Even though both Foxtail and Notch's opinions matched hers — even though One-Leg had shown his support — what did it matter? It was clear, very clear, that most of the tribe didn't feel the same way. Even Rainpace had made it clear that he, too, was tired of her actions of late. He didn't understand that she had been hurting, and that hurt, too.
Besides, what did any support matter when the only opinion that counted — Windburn's opinion — was against her? She bowed her head and gave an involuntary sigh. She was tired. Physically tired, tired of arguing, and tired of fighting when there was no 'right' thing to do.
She felt Notch punch her shoulder then. It hurt. “What the rutting gut-rot is this?” he hollered at her. “Stop looking like you've been whipped! The Willow Foxtail and I know wouldn't be acting like some bullied pup! C'mon! You healed Brightwood and the cub both! They're here with us now and not stowed away in some cocoon waiting for someone to grow a pair enough to take the risk! You proved them all wrong!”
“Like it made a difference,” Willow sighed, absently reaching up to rub her sore arm. She opened her eyes, and stared at the floor. She felt anger stir inside her again. “Doesn't matter what I do, Windburn is never going to listen to me or respect that I have thoughts and feelings, too. Especially not after this.”
Notch frowned and leaned in closer. “And what about those of us who do? Who have listened and cared and who have fought to make him listen to you all along? What are we? Me, Foxtail... Rainpace. Rainpace might be frustrated with you because you've been acting like wolf piss lately, but he's not against you. Shards, even my father was bellowing about how closed-headed Windburn was. Doesn't that mean anything to you?”
When Willow didn't respond, Foxtail spoke up. “Hrmph. Probably not, considering she tries to push anyone away who even tries to care about her.”
Willow swallowed hard. They were both right, and the truth hurt just as much as Windburn's lack of respect for her over the past few moons had. She hadn't respected them, when they had been on her side all along. “I'm sorry,” she finally managed to say. She was starting to wonder what she had done right. “You're right. You're both right. I've been pushing everything away trying to grasp for something I'll never have.”
“You have us,” Foxtail said then. She took Willow's hand again. “We're here for you.”
Notch put his arm around Willow and nodded. “We're with you, no matter what. And if you open your eyes, you'll find that more of us are with you than you think.” He sent an image with that statement, of his sister, Beetle — patient, kind, sweet — just as Willow knew her. **She's with you, too — even though you two left on bad terms.**
Willow knew it was true. Beetle had been waiting for her, and had wanted to help her. Was she still waiting? Did Beetle really have faith in her?
Notch nodded at her. **But if you ever yell at her like that again, I'll skin you alive.**
For some unexplained reason, that made Willow smile.
“So... now that that's over with,” Foxtail said with a smirk, “how about a trip to the river to clean you up? You reek worse than that stinkbomb Honey fell into after she woke up.”
Willow chuckled a moment, then nodded and willingly let Notch and Foxtail take her hands and lead her out of the den.
Beetle tried not to be distracted as Pathmark led her across the clearing and up the stairs toward his den, which he now shared with Evervale and Longshot. Outside, Notch and Willow's scent blended together, and Beetle guessed that the pair had gone off somewhere. Willow hadn't wanted her. However, while Willow's rejection hurt, at least Willow wasn't by herself. Beetle allowed herself to find some comfort in the fact that Willow had allowed Notch to be with her.
She and Pathmark took the stairs upward, and when they passed the entrance to her father's den and her own, Beetle paused. She hadn't seen her father yet. Pathmark waited for her, and she peeked in. A new scent, a stranger's, assaulted her nose, and Beetle felt herself tense. Pathmark put a hand on her shoulder and sent, **It's Brightwood.**
Beetle breathed a sigh of relief and stepped into the den. Looking toward her father's bedbowl, she glimpsed a sleeping form that had to be her aunt's. Farscout was lying next to her, cradling Brightwood in his arms. He looked up, half-smiled at Beetle, and sent, **Your father, Greenweave, and Newt are sleeping in the gathering den.**
Beetle was curious about the new elf sleeping so peacefully in the bed. She wanted a better look, but she got the impression from Farscout that she should wait — that he didn't want anything to disturb his beloved's rest. **I look forward to meeting my aunt,** Beetle sent. Farscout nodded at her.
Beetle left the den and found Pathmark waiting for her. They quietly stole up the stairs and found their way to his den. Beetle hesitated, not wanting to disturb his lovemates. She knew Evervale had to be exhausted from the word hunt and from the long ride back. Pathmark looked at her questioningly.
“I don’t want to disturb them,” she said apologetically, referring to the pair that lay sleeping within.
“Nonsense,” Evervale’s voice called from within. “You’re not a disturbance to us. You’re our friend, and we’re here for you.”
Beetle caught herself almost smiling. Pathmark must have alerted them when she was talking with Farscout. “Well,” Pathmark asked, “You’re coming in, aren’t you?”
She nodded weakly, and allowed him to lead her inside. Surprisingly, it was not the mess she had anticipated. From the neat and orderly state of the den, she knew he had learned something from their brief time as lovemates. In the corner of the den, almost hidden by the bed-bowl, there was a tell-tale pile that could only be his. Pathmark, dear, sweet Pathmark, was still the same. He couldn't help but be messy, and he needed a space for it, however small.
Something... lack of sleep, the hard ride home, the tension of the meeting that she had left, the worry about Willow, or a combination of all of them made Beetle's observation of the lovemates’ den particularly funny. Her chuckle grew to a laugh, and in moments, she was laughing so hard that tears were falling. She knew Pathmark, Evervale, and Longshot had to be confused. She tried to share in sending what was happening and what she was experiencing, but she couldn't. She was laughing too hard. And crying.
And then she was just crying.
Pathmark drew her to himself and wrapped his arms around her. Evervale and Longshot put hands on her shoulders. She cried, letting out all the tension and emotion she had been feeling. She clung to Pathmark, wishing he were Willow, and crying harder because he wasn't. And then, after she had cried herself out, she held on a little longer. And then, she was still.
Evervale sat on the floor and Longshot leaned against her. Beetle and Pathmark sat down on the edge of the bed. To the questioning looks from Evervale and Longshot, Beetle whispered, “She’s going to get the elders’ memories of Owl.”
"It's not going to be easy," Pathmark spoke.
"The stories are bad enough," Longshot said. "But to get sendings of it, full of all the emotions and sensations..." He shuddered. "What she did was wrong and the response seems fair. I wouldn't want to be in her boots, though."
"No," Beetle agreed. "Willow's got a long path to ride."
"And she'll have to do it alone for a few days," Pathmark quietly explained, sharing that Willow would be shunned.
**Not alone!** Beetle sent, her eyes widening as she stood. **Even in shunning there is the knowledge that others are there, that others are waiting for the punishment to end. Willow needs to know that, or it could be unbearable for her. She needs to know that we're with her no matter what.**
Beetle added, "If the sending and shunning is as bad as Blacksnake and One-Leg made it sound like it is going to be, Willow is going to need some sort of hope to cling to."
"You'll have to tell her, Beetle," Pathmark said quietly, taking her hands in his own. Longshot and Evervale nodded. She looked at Pathmark, and he added, "I know you've told her you're there. I know that she said 'not now,' but she needs to know that you meant it."
At her look of protest, Evervale spoke up, "We know you meant it! But think... she healed Brightwood, she faced Windburn... knowing Willow, she thinks everyone's against her. And... well, she needs to accept that what she did was wrong even though she succeeded.”
“And...” Pathmark added, “she needs to accept that we all love her whether she's wrong or right."
Beetle smiled at that.
Pathmark grinned, "You do love her, don't you?
She nodded. Evervale and Longshot smiled.
"Then tell her.” It was Longshot who spoke now. “Again. And again and again if you have to."
Beetle laughed. She wouldn't mind telling Willow over and over again, as long as Willow was willing to hear it. "She's not in her den, but I’ll wait for her there," Beetle promised.
Pathmark smiled at her. "Good."
Beetle hugged the lovemates one more time, then made her way out of his den and into Willow's.
A bath coupled with a good sand-scrubbing had lifted Willow's spirits somewhat. However, as the night turned to day, and day waned into afternoon, the sense of dread over what was to come when the moons rose began to displace those brightening spirits.
Willow was tired. Her body and her head still ached from the strain of pulling both Brightwood and the cub back from the brink of death. She hadn't slept aside from the few hours she had spent in Windburn's den, and nerves certainly wouldn't let her sleep now. Her friends had tried to give her food, but her stomach was too knotted up from apprehension for her to even want to eat. Notch and Foxtail stayed with her, until she told them she was going to go to her den to try, at least, to rest.
“Let us stay with you until you have to... leave,” Foxtail begged as they walked up the exterior stairs of the Mother Tree.
Willow stopped and shook her head. “I know you're both here for me, but... I did what I did alone. I have to get ready face it alone.”
Notch made a sour face. “I still don't think it's right.” He put a hand on Willow's shoulder. “Remember, we're thinking of you. When it's all over, we'll be waiting for you.”
“I know.” Willow put an arm around Foxtail and Notch both, pulled them close, and hugged them fiercely. She did her best to keep a strong outer appearance for them. “That means a lot.” Then, she pulled the flap-covering to her den aside, and went in alone.
The surprise of Beetle's scent filled Willow's nose, and she breathed it in deeply. Her eyes wandered over to the tell-tale lump asleep in her bed-bowl, and memories of the heated argument she'd had with Beetle just a couple of evenings ago raced through her head. Willow closed her eyes.
Regret welled painfully in her chest and threatened to break the wall she had built up around herself in preparation for her punishment ahead. She hadn't meant what she had said to Beetle the other night. She did need Beetle, and, now, here Beetle was, waiting in her bed like nothing ever had happened over the past two eves.
Willow sighed. If only that was the case...
Willow crept over to her bed and climbed into it, being as careful as she could be to not wake Beetle up. She curled up behind Beetle and put an arm around her middle to get as close to her lovemate as she could. She buried her nose in Beetle's hair, breathed in her scent, and closed her eyes again.
And for a moment, the dread of what was to come this evening vanished. For one brief moment, there was peace.
Willow had come into the den and snuggled behind her. Beetle felt herself relaxing, aching muscles slowly soothed by Willow. Beetle smiled to herself. She had to be dreaming.
She rolled over and opened her eyes to see Willow, who was exhausted but smiling. Her eyes were not haunted, but relieved.
Beetle nodded. "You healed them. My aunt... the baby. They're alive. Thank you," she said as she reached out to gather Willow into her arms.
"You're the only one who's thanked me," Willow said quietly.
"I won't be the last," Beetle promised. "Even Farscout will thank you... one day, and even if he doesn't... He's happy to have her back, even if he's not happy with how it happened."
Willow pulled her close again, and Beetle reveled in the feel of Willow's arms around her. She hadn't been certain that they would ever have a moment like this again. "Enough about them," she insisted. "I wanted to say... I'm sorry, Willow. I'm so sorry I haven't been there for you. I should have. I should have stayed at the Holt while you had to. I should have listened when you just needed to vent. And I shouldn't have accused you of self-pity. You needed me, and I abandoned you."
Willow's breath felt hot against her ear as she leaned close and whispered, “No. I should be the one who says sorry, not you. I never should have said those things I said to you. I didn't mean them. Not a word.”
Beetle felt a tear slide down her cheek, and Willow reached to wipe it away. With her weary smile, Willow conveyed that she was just glad to be there with Beetle right now. Beetle was glad, too. **I'm with you, Willow. Always.**
And then the sending came, openly, for Willow to come to the punishment the elders had prepared. Beetle felt something moving away from her. Still groggy, she moaned at the chill that came with Willow's sudden absence. 'Willow!' she thought with a start, her eyes opening wide. Willow's glorious scent was all around her, enveloping her. But she was gone!
Beetle rolled over in time to see Willow ducking out of the den. Beetle willed herself to move, to go to her. She started to get up, but Willow turned to look at her and shook her head, wordlessly telling her to stay put. She managed a wan smile, but it was a smile nonetheless. Beetle smiled back. **I'll be here for you when it's all over. I love you.**
**Appreciate you. Love you, too,** Willow wordlessly sent, and then she was gone.
Willow took a deep breath to try and brace her nerves as she made her way down the stairs on the outside of the Mother Tree. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and her feet felt like they were made of stone. She had heard stories of Owl and what he had done all of her life. But she still had no idea of what exactly the elders were going to show her in just a little while.
What would she see? The stories of how Owl went mad were frightening enough in of themselves. They had caused many a cub to have nightmares over the turns, but no one who hadn't lived during that time had ever had to relive what he had done before, had they?
Fear, dread, and the urge to run welled unbearably in Willow's gut, but she fought them back. She stopped near the bottom of the stairs and took another deep breath. All her life, she had learned that living was a series of actions and the consequences of those actions. Good or ill, you had to own the ripples of the rocks you threw into that big pond that was your life. Run away, and the ripples would turn to waves that would catch you up and try to drown you.
And, High Ones, what she was facing now were definitely waves. The biggest she had ever faced. But hadn't she stopped running when Blacksnake had found her at the hot-springs those many moons ago? When had everything started to go so wrong?
Further thoughts were interrupted as One-Leg met her at the bottom of the steps. Willow hadn't forgot the words of support he had given her the night before.
He put a hand on her shoulder. "There are things I mean to say to you while I can. Should have said sooner, but I didn't know better."
Willow was confused, and she must have looked it. Didn't they need to get to where the elders were waiting? She took a step in that direction, but One-Leg stopped her.
"No. Listen to me. Maybe now's not the right time, but I'm bone-tired of waiting for the right time when action is needed in the Now! You and I are alike in a way — we both had our lives changed by something we didn't ask for. After I lost my leg, it took me a long time to figure out how to make my tribemates realize that I was still *me*, and not just *this*." He pointed to his peg-leg. "I could have done better at helping you through the changes thrust upon you, and seeing to it your voice was given the weight it deserves. I can remember what it's like to have others thinking they know what's best for you, ignoring what you want, dismissing you. There's ways to make 'em listen when you stand up for yourself — but you've got to know how to say it so they'll *hear*. When the shunning's done, *I* can teach you." He swallowed, and looked into her face. "But what I really need to say right now is... Thank you, for healing my friend."
Willow wasn't sure what to say. One-Leg's words were as sincere as if he had sent them. He was with her, too.
She nodded, still not quite able to wipe the uncertainty from her face.
“All right, then,” One-Leg said, clapping her on the shoulder. “The others are waiting. Let's go.”
Willow nodded again, and fell into step behind the elder. However, he refused to let her walk in step behind him. He waited until she had reached his side and, then, walked with her to where the preparations for her punishment had been made.
“Don't you even think that any of us are going to enjoy this,” he quietly said to her before they reached ear-shot of others.
“I never thought that for a moment,” Willow answered. Then, she set her jaw. Time to face those waves she'd made.