(This story is part of the "Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing" storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
Brightwood was well. The baby was well, and she could feel the little one growing, both in size and in presence, more and more with each passing eve.
And this morn, the cub was sitting on her bladder. She sat up, and, without a word, hastily headed for the entryway to her den.
**Again?** Farscout sent to her, more than mildly amused. This was the third time in the course of just a short while that she'd had to make a dash out the den-door.
**Again,** came her reply, and she made sure her lifemate could tell from her tone that she didn't think this was funny in the least. The night had been sticky and oppressive, and the air was becoming all the more heavy the longer sunlight touched it. Truth be told, she wanted nothing more than to lie down and find some way to drift to sleep despite the uncomfortable air. Twice now she'd been stirred from near-slumber by this sudden, too-insistent need to relieve her bladder.
**We could just bring the pot back.** Farscout gestured toward the area near the entryway where the little stone pot for these purposes was usually kept.
Brightwood's response was a sour face. The heat and humidity intensified the already-strong smell of urine, which, for some reason, had begun to nauseate her an eve or so ago. She'd banished the pot from the den as a result, and in the meantime both she and Farscout had been going outside when the need for relief called. **I'll be back shortly.**
She descended the Mother Tree, and a tiny breeze stirred the leaves overhead when she exited at the base that, thankfully, took the edge off the heavy air and livened her steps up a bit. She hastily made her way to the area near the Dentrees that the elves often used for such a purpose, and wasted no time in relieving herself.
**Now, give me a chance to get a little rest, will you?** she amusedly sent to the little presence inside her.
A scent on the breeze and the slightest rustling of leaves caught her attention. She was still getting used to the new scents in this new Holt... so much had changed since her long sleep, and sometimes the immensity of it all seemed so overwhelming that Brightwood often wondered if she would ever get used to it.
She sniffed the air. The scent was Willow's scent – the healer's scent – and, admittedly, Willow held a certain kind of interest for Brightwood. There were so many questions she longed to ask the healer. Brightwood knew there was another side to the story of her unwrapping that was yet to be heard, and yet there had never yet been an opportunity to hear it. While she'd had a chance to see Willow here and there – after the shunning when she had apologized publicly, at the Howl held a few nights after that, and other glimpses – she hadn't really had the chance to see or get to know the healer much at all. Ever since the healer's shunning, perhaps for good reasons, Willow seemed to mostly keep to herself. And though Brightwood often scented the healer in the den a few levels below hers, it seemed that circumstances were never right to approach her. Either Farscout, who was still incensed at the healer, was nearby – and that certainly wouldn't lead to any pleasant first communication – or Willow was immersed in the company of her lovemate or her friends. What Brightwood really wanted was a chance to talk to the healer – alone.
Willow came into view and paused for the briefest of moments – clearly taken by surprise because Brightwood had been downwind – when she saw the tall plantshaper standing in the path. A slight look of discomfort dashed across the healer's features before Willow set her face into a more neutral expression. However, the healer's stance still seemed defensive and wary, even when Brightwood smiled and called out a greeting.
“...Hey,” Willow hesitantly answered. “Uh, hope you and the babe are well.”
Brightwood returned, “Yes, yes we are – thank you.”
“Good, good. I'm glad,” Willow nodded, then carefully edged closer to Brightwood. She tilted her head toward the area from which the plantshaper had just emerged. “Uh, just stopping to piss.”
“Oh, of course.” Brightwood stepped aside and let Willow pass by.
“Well, that was uncomfortable,” Brightwood near-whispered to herself. One would think that Willow thought she'd be bitten or something! She shook her head and took a step back toward her den, but then she decided to wait. This was the first chance she'd had to talk to Willow alone, and she was not going to walk away with seeming bad blood between the both of them!
So she turned and waited for the healer to finish and to return. And, when Willow did, the healer seemed just as surprised that Brightwood was still there as when she had run into the plantshaper in the first place.
Brightwood saw Willow swallow and look her up and down. Then, the smaller elf stood up straight, set her jaw, and glanced groundward, proclaiming, “If you're going to yell at me, could you please just get it over with? This waiting for you to chew me up and spit me out is killing me – all right?”
A smile tugged at the corner of Brightwood's mouth. She recognized a fire in Willow that still burned in her, too.
“I don't want to yell at you,” she replied with a smirk. “What I wanted to say was thank you.”
Willow's head shot up and her eyes went wide. As if she didn't believe her ears, she blurted, “Thank me?”
“Yes, thank you for what you did. I'm glad to be here again, with my lifemate and my tribe... even though this is a different tribe. And I wanted to thank you for healing the cub, too.”
Willow blinked. She was speechless. The hard set in her jaw vanished, as did her defensive posture. Willow had been completely disarmed, and Brightwood knew it.
The healer finally said, “...You're welcome,” after the longest of pauses, before adding, “I... just wasn't expecting thanks. I figured you'd be just as angry with me as your lifemate was, and I --”
"No,” Brightwood interrupted, “I am not angry with you. I do think what you did was stupid and dangerous with no back-up and no one else around to support you if things went bad. You went against the wishes of people who wanted to wait, when it was not your decision to make. You are very fortunate that things turned out well. It might not have been so."
All right, so maybe she wanted to scold the healer just a little bit.
Willow nodded somberly, and then quietly agreed. Her voice was soft. “I know. And if I could change things, I'd do things differently.” Her eyes had gone groundward again, like a submissive wolf's. “I'm sorry.”
Brightwood closed the gap between them, reached out, and put her hands on Willow's shoulders. She didn't want submission. She wanted Willow to look her in the eye. “I know you're sorry. I think of everything I've heard you say since I've met you, those two words have been the biggest part of your vocabulary. You have to know how to say more than that.” A thought came to her, then. “Would you like to take a walk? I'd really like to get to know you better.”
Willow's eyes met hers, and the healer hesitantly nodded.
The pair headed south along the Holt's River and away from the Holt proper. The small breeze that had begun to blow when Brightwood left her tree-den seemed stronger here, and the sound of the rushing water, for some reason, made the blanket of heat hanging over them seem much less oppressive.
The pair made small-talk as they walked. Brightwood found, despite the discomfort of their first meeting, that it was surprisingly easy to talk to the healer, once Willow had realized she wasn't going to receive a reprimand and had relaxed. They talked about everything from the heat to hunting, to pranks and wagers and dice games, and about fellow tribemates. Brightwood found that she liked Willow's blunt opinion about things and the loud, boisterous laugh Willow had when something came up she thought was funny. It made Brightwood laugh, too.
The rocky riverbank dipped down into a semi-open clearing flanked by two trees, and the two made a beeline in that direction. That's when Brightwood finally said, “You know, I've heard a lot of opinions about your healing me and the babe. But what I'd really like to hear is your side of things.”
Brightwood noticed a subtle change in Willow's posture as the healer paused to gaze out over the water at a long-legged bird that had just lifted off from a rock glossy from the river's flow. “I can't,” she said, after a long silence. “It doesn't matter why it happened, anyway.”
“It matters to me,” Brightwood said. “I want to know the whole of what happened. There's value in seeing things from all directions, and I want to know how you saw it.”
Willow looked tentatively over at her companion. “It's... hard to talk about. I know I was wrong. And it's so hard to separate...” she trailed off that thought and never picked it back up. Eventually, she just said, “I think it started with resentment.”
“Resentment? About your healing powers?”
“Well, kind of,” the healer began. “I had problems accepting I'd got this ability in the first place, but I'd moved past that. I was willing to do what I needed to, and I thought I was trying my best to master what had been given to me.”
Brightwood nodded. “Resentment about what, then?”
The younger elf took a deep breath and then a step forward. “I think it started when Windburn said I couldn't go with the word-hunters. It was hard for me to do, but I tried to push that out of my mind. I knew he was right. I knew that it would be dangerous, and I knew what I was expected to eventually do – I had to heal you and the other sleepers. And if I wound up dead on the end of a human's spear, it wasn't going to do anyone any good. So I sucked in my gut and took the punch.”
Willow picked up a smooth stone from the bank, then, and sent it out skipping expertly over the water's surface before it went under with a plunk. “It was what came after that really started to bother me.”
“Which was?” Brightwood found a place to sit next to the thick trunk of an oak tree. Despite the cool breeze, the heat was still sapping her energy reserves, and it felt good to get off her feet.
Willow grunted and didn't say anything for a moment. She stooped down to pick up another smooth rock to skip across the water, and growled to herself. “It doesn't really matter now, does it? What's done is done.”
“It sounds like it still matters to you.”
Willow shook her head, but her posture spoke to the contrary. For some reason, she seemed hesitant to talk about some of this, and Brightwood wasn't sure why. She knew the healer must have had some reasons to do what she did, and given the anger and resentment that some of the other tribemates still had over the situation, she wasn't sure the information they could give her was accurate. She could still see some kind of anger just bubbling beneath the surface as Willow tossed that second stone and walked over to lean against the tree opposite of the one under which Brightwood was sitting. She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Tell me. Is it really that bad?”
“They acted like it was in my head. I know it was, but--”
“What was in your head? I want to know.”
“I felt trapped... overprotected,” Willow finally replied, and she still sounded angry. “The word-hunt was one thing, but then... suddenly the spring shagback hunt was too dangerous for me to go to, too. And then it just started being one case of one, 'No, you can't go,' after another.” She made her voice sound deep, in imitation of the Chief's. “'No, you can't go on the Summer Hunt, we might be crossing too close to the humans for comfort. It'd be best if you stay at the Dentrees.'”
“The long hunts, right?” Brightwood asked then. Both hunts Willow mentioned usually involved being gone from the Holt for up to a moon at a time, and could be very dangerous, even without humans being involved.
Willow nodded, then turned around and sat down at the base of the tree nearest her. Her eyes glazed over as she recounted each of those instances in her head. “And then Greedygut... well, part of that was stupid. No... all of it was. I know it was my fault, but at the time, I just felt that when I got the chance to feel the wind in my hair and live... I had to take it.”
Brightwood arched an eyebrow, suddenly confused. “Greedygut?”
“Oh, yeah.” Willow shook her head and shot Brightwood an apologetic look. “My 'arch-rival.'” Willow told her companion the story about how Farscout had saved her from her own stupidity when she'd foolishly tried to take on that bear and had broken her leg – and nearly got herself killed – as a result. She told about Windburn's subsequent restrictions, and of how angry she became at him and the situation as a result.
Brightwood draped her arms over her knees and replied, "At the risk of sounding too much like an elder, I got into great huge piles of trouble when I was younger for doing much the same sort of thing.” The breeze picked up again, and she brushed a stray strand of hair out of her face. “There is something to be said for fun and play, but there is also something to be said for growing up and taking your place in the tribe, especially when you have magic as important as healing. You may lose some perceived freedom, because you have a responsibility now that no one else can have, something more important than raiding beehives. It's called growing up and we all have to do it, some sooner than others."
Willow sighed. “I know. Now I do.” Then, she shook her head. “At the time, though, all I could see was that Windburn was heaping yet another restriction on me for no good reason. I felt like he'd drawn a rope around my neck, and it just seemed like everything was closing in. I was so angry and was...” She made a face then, as if she were struggling to find the words for what she wanted to say. “I was feeling so sorry for myself, it's all I could see. I wouldn't let myself see anything but that.” Then, she found a spot on the ground to stare at and thought for a moment.
“And then it got worse when I... when we lost Fletcher,” Willow said then. The quick change the healer made mid-sentence was telling. Brightwood had heard many things about Fletcher's death, but it was more than clear here that Willow still shouldered quite a bit of the burden of his loss. “I thought I knew what had happened. I felt in my gut I was right,” Willow continued, thumping her midsection for emphasis. “And, even though I was asked my opinion on what had gone wrong, I didn't feel like anyone really believed me or wanted to listen.” She frowned and let her hand fall. “It hurt. I felt like what I had to say didn't matter.”
Willow fell silent again, and Brightwood took the opportunity, this time, to speak up. "I realize that Fletcher's loss was probably beyond your control, and you say you know what happened there, that you couldn't stop him from leaving, but you haven't used your magic enough to know you have the answer.” She had heard of Willow's reactions from others who had spoken with her after Fletcher had died.
“You can be pretty sure,” the plantshaper continued. “You can say you knew in your gut; but the truth is that you believed you knew. You believed you understood what happened well enough to know you could manage my healing and the baby's, and you may have been right, but you couldn't possibly know if you were or not.” She leaned forward with a knowing look on her face. “When you understand how much you know you don't know -- then you will be on the right path."
Willow nodded. “I've got a lot to learn.” She looked out over the river again.
Brightwood wanted to know more, but Willow had fallen silent again. "You understood that certain people would be really upset and you went ahead with it. Why?" The plantshaper prodded.
“I started to think... they didn't believe in me anymore,” Willow admitted, closing her eyes. “That... and the fact that Windburn still wouldn't let me get out much made me feel so frustrated... and suffocated... and even more sorry for myself. I got ugly with everyone. I was so stupid...” She growled shook her head, like she was angry with herself, then looked up at Brightwood again and frowned. “Well... you know what happened after that.”
Brightwood nodded. "I do. Did you really think about what you would do if you lost me or the baby due to overconfidence?"
Willow shook her head and laid her hands in her lap. “All I kept thinking was that when you were alive and well – when you and the baby were all safe and sound and back with the ones who loved you... then I'd be free to go and do the things I wasn't allowed to do because you were still injured and sleeping. So I had to succeed.” She opened her hands and stared at her palms. “And I figured that when everyone saw you were all right, everyone would be happy and thankful for what I did. I was stupid. I was wrong.”
After a moment's pause, Brightwood spoke. “I'm sorry you had to be put through learning the whole truth about Owl the way you did. I don't remember much of what happened after he grabbed me – it was like a horrible dream; I had just lost my first wolf-friend to the sickness, everyone sick and dying, then the healer going off his nut like that...” She trailed off as the memory of it echoed across the ages. “All of it was just too awful to be real. Did learning his story help you to get perspective? Did it make more sense why so many people were upset?" She almost knew the answer to that question, but she wanted to ask, anyway. She, herself, had chosen not to relive those memories with the tribe, but knew many others had. She knew the experience would be difficult.
Willow flinched at that question, and Brightwood almost wished she hadn't asked what she had. A sudden sense of disconnect from Willow seemed to follow in the long silence afterward. The healer opened her mouth a couple of times like she was going to speak, but then ended up closing her mouth and saying nothing. A sorrow seemed to fall over the healer, something that reminded Brightwood of the day Willow emerged from her shunning and apologized to the whole gathered Holt who was waiting on her.
“...Yeah,” the healer finally managed to say, and her voice was heavy. Her brow furrowed as she looked away again and took a ragged breath. “I've got a lot to learn, and a lot of making up to do, and a lot of trust to earn back. I don't think True Edge or your brother or your lifemate are ever going to stop being angry at me.” She glanced up at Brightwood then, and fight and fire crept back into her voice. “I'm trying to hang strong. I know it'll be a long path. But I'll get to the end of it, somehow.”
Brightwood pushed herself to her feet, crossed over to where Willow sat, and plopped down next to her. She put an arm around the healer's shoulders, and the healer looked up at her with eyebrows raised. “You're not alone. And Farscout, Cloudfern, and True Edge – and others – are angry, yes, but keep your head in what's right, show them you've learned, just like you have me, and they'll come around... eventually. Plus... I forgave you when you came to where everyone was gathered and you said you were sorry. I like you. You remind me too much of myself not to like, and I'm on your side.”
Willow managed a smile at her, “Thanks. That makes me feel better to know.”
Brightwood smiled back and added, “Besides, it makes no sense to keep on punishing you forever for decisions you made when you didn't understand your priorities.”
“Didn't understand is an understatement,” Willow groaned.
A gentle sending brushed Brightwood's mind then – a simple, sleepy mind-touch. It was Farscout reaching out, as if he still couldn't quite believe that she was here, alive, with him now, and that she would answer back. But she did.
“We should get back,” Brightwood said then, before sending to Farscout to let him know that she would be returning to him shortly.
Willow nodded and got to her feet. “If Beetle's not asleep, she's probably worrying over me. She's like that.” She extended a hand to Brightwood to help her up. “Mates. Always fretting over something, y'know?” she teased, sighing and rolling her eyes jokingly. Brightwood took Willow's hand and laughed as the healer pulled her to her feet.
Their mood remained light as pair walked back to the Holt proper and ascended toward their dens in the Mother Tree. When they reached Willow's den, the two prepared to part ways.
“So, I'll see you around?” Willow asked as she peeled back the leather flap covering her den's entrance and put one foot inside.
Brightwood smiled. “Without a doubt.”
“I could probably get you a spot in one of those dice games I was telling you about. You interested?”
“Yes. I'd like that.”
“Just watch out – don't let Notch try to sneak in his loaded dice,” Willow smirked.
Brightwood laughed, then turned to continue upward to her den. “Have a good day.”
“You, too. Sleep well!” the healer called after her and ducked out of sight.
Brightwood smiled to herself and she finished her climb to her den. She liked Willow, and she knew she had made a new friend. It made her feel a little bit more comfortable in this new place. She pulled the den-flap aside and stepped toward both her lifemate and her bed...
“Welcome back,” a sleepy-sounding Farscout said as she entered, but his eyebrows shot up when she immediately turned back toward the den-door with an exasperated sigh and a quickened step.
**Again!** she sent to her lifemate, relaying that, once again, their cub had found a seat upon her bladder. **I'll be back shortly.**