(This story takes place at the same time as ”With You” and ”The Lesson of the Last Healer”, and may not make sense without having read those stories first; and it is part of the Consequences of Willow's Rogue Healing storyline -- see the listing for more related stories.)
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 from the bedbowl. 'Willow!' she thought with a start, her eyes opening wide. Willow's glorious scent was all around her, enveloping her. She had been there, but she was leaving.
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 wasn’t mad at her any more - Willow loved her! Beetle felt like crying... after the hand or so of tense days, things were better between them. And now... Beetle shuddered.
Willow was on her way to face something she shouldn’t have to face alone... and then, four days of shunning. Beetle wanted nothing more than to rush out of the den to find Willow, hug her, and hold her close. But she couldn’t. The healer had to face what was coming. And Beetle would be there for her when it was all over.
A send from Windburn invited others in the tribe to prepare themselves to share in the memories as well. Willow wouldn’t be alone in what she was about to face after all. Beetle couldn't be there in the chief's den with her lovemate, but she could be with her in sending. She looked around Willow's tiny den, knowing she wouldn’t find any dreamberries, but still looking, on the off chance that there would be some. There weren’t.
Beetle didn’t have the energy to leave the bedbowl, let alone head to the storage dens to find dreamberries, so she figured she’d have to participate without them. At least she’d be “there.”
There was a faint scratching at the doorflap. “Beetle?” Without waiting for an answer, Notch poked his head into the den; he finally spotted his half-sister in the bedbowl. One arm snaked through the opening, holding a bag. “Dreamberries,” he smirked as he entered the tiny den, followed by Foxtail. “Figured we could use them.” He put the bag down next to the bedbowl and climbed in, wrapping his arms around Beetle. “We couldn’t let you go through this alone.”
“Never,” the chief’s daughter agreed. She held an extra fur in her own hands; soft and inviting, Beetle could identify it as one of Foxtail’s favorites, kept scrupulously clean and used only when she deemed the occasion special enough. She smiled reassuringly as she approached. “We’re here for you and Willow, Beetle. That’s a promise, sure as the moons rise.” Tossing the fur over the two already in the bedbowl, she then clambered in herself to settle into the small area left on Beetle’s other side. She bent to nuzzle the other elf maiden’s hair. “Unless you want us to leave.” Though it was given as a statement, Beetle could still hear the note of question at the end, an offer to leave, however unwillingly, should Beetle demand it.
Beetle wasn’t about to demand, or even ask, that either of them leave. Surprised, she was, but also grateful. Though the offer had been made to the whole tribe to partake in the memories, Beetle knew better than to imagine it would be a pleasant experience. She was grateful to have company... especially these two. Out of the others in the tribe, Beetle knew that only the three of them had a good idea of what Willow would experience during the shunning. She shivered a little, pushing thoughts of her own three hands of shunning aside, and snuggling closer to Foxtail.
“You... don’t want us to leave, do you?” Notch asked, his tone only half-joking.
“No!” Beetle said, a bit more forcefully than she meant. A nervous laugh escaped. She really didn’t want to be alone right now. “I...” she paused, then sent, **Don’t want to be alone. Happy for both of you to be here. Don’t go.**
**We're not going anywhere.** Notch wrapped Beetle’s mind in warm comfort as he nestled under the fur with both her and Foxtail. He remembered too well himself the horrible loneliness and the sense of being dead to the tribe during his own shunning - even though he had kept himself in a state of seething anger, holed up in his lairs, plotting revenge to stay sane.
A sending interrupted his dark thoughts. **Where?** It was Rainpace.
**Willow's den.** Notch answered in the same short way they used to talk when things got serious.
**On my way,** came Rainpace’s response.
“Rainpace will be coming too, though he’ll have to take the floor. Willow’s got the smallest den in the entire Holt.” He grinned. “Cozy enough for two or three, but more than that and it's as crowded as a she-wolf's whelping den."
“Don’t complain like you mean it.” Foxtail grinned over Beetle’s head at Notch. Then she slipped one arm behind Beetle’s shoulders and tugged her into the firm welcome of her own body, nudging until Beetle’s head came to a rest on her shoulder. “Close is better, anyway,” she announced. “No one wants to be alone.”
Beetle felt the redhead give a little shiver and she knew that Foxtail was remembering their shunning as well. It had taken moons to draw anything out of the chief’s daughter about her wildly swinging disposition during the death-like days of their first punishment. Beetle hadn’t shared with anyone about her experience of shunning. She could only guess what others might think if she told them of how deeply it had impacted her.
She drew her mind back to the situation when she felt Foxtail pinch her earlobe and she looked upwards. Foxtail smiled again, more gently this time and so lovely. “As soon as we can, Willow won’t be alone either,” she murmured. “We can’t let her be. Can you imagine what a stinkbear she’d be if we let her be too long?”
Beetle grinned. She could imagine. All she had to think of was how irritable Willow had been when she had thought she was alone and had no one to lean on. Beetle shivered to think of what her lovemate might go through during her four days of shunning. She vowed silently to keep a watch over Willow, if only to be there if help was absolutely needed.
Foxtail nudged her, and Beetle snapped out of her thoughts. “Oh, yes,” Beetle agreed. “She’d be worse than a female stinkbear guarding her cubs from attack.”
The sound of a birdcall alerted Beetle to Dreamflight’s arrival. Her friend peeked her head in and, seeing the full bedbowl, paused before asking, “Mind if I join you all?” She sent to Beetle, **I thought you would want some company.**
Beetle smiled from where she was squeezed between her brother and Foxtail. “The more company, the better. Find a place to sit down and join us.”
Dreamflight smiled in return, then made herself as comfortable as possible near the bedbowl. She had brought dreamberries as well, and she wasn’t going to waste any time. “We should start eating them now so we’re ready whenever it starts.” She handed a couple toward Beetle who opened her mouth for Dreamflight to put them in.
As Notch took the cue and opened his own pouch to offer the small, juicy fruit, Foxtail hesitated. Her arms stayed in a loose loop around Beetle and she eyed the dreamberries in both Dreamflight and Notch’s palms with a shuttered look. She glanced swiftly between all three faces and then, giving Beetle an extra squeeze, she untangled one arm and held out the hand, palm-up. “All together,” she agreed quietly and she gave Dreamflight a crooked, little smile. “It’s better this way, too, right?”
At that moment, the doorflap was pulled away again. Rainpace stepped in, exhausted and panting. It seemed he had made a hasty return from checking his traps. The two tousled partridges hanging from his belt were evidence of success.
Trying not to stumble over Dreamflight, who was crouched on the floor but leaning over the bed bowl, Rainpace caught Beetle’s eyes and asked, “Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” Beetle answered, managing a small, reassuring smile.
Beetle understood his concern for Willow and was glad that he wouldn’t have to share the memories alone. The young trapper settled himself on the floor and snuggled next to Dreamflight who offered him some dreamberries.
The space of the small den was completely filled. ‘All we’re missing is Willow,’ Beetle thought sadly. ‘This is going to be so much harder on her.’ Beetle’s thoughts were interrupted by Blacksnake’s sending, and she reached out to touch her mind to those who were sharing in this sending of memories.
**You’ve all heard these stories before...** Blacksnake had begun. **You’ve heard them often enough that maybe you’ve stopped hearing them, thinking you know what happened, but it was all so long ago that it doesn’t matter. The only thing those stories told us was why we cherished those cocoons of our tribemates in a den beneath the Mother Tree, why we had to wait and hope through an oak’s age and more, not knowing if we’d ever see those within them alive again. Children grew up scared of old Owl, but what did it teach them? That something terrible had once happened to the tribe, and the chieftess saved us from it. They didn’t learn how it might happen again.**
The intensity of what was to come was promised in Blacksnake’s sending. **It wasn’t Owl’s madness alone that was frightening – it was knowing who he was before the madness took him, and then seeing what it made him become, what it made him do, that was the worst. We can’t tell you those stories and make you understand that, we have to show you.**
Beetle shivered and snuggled closer to Foxtail and Notch. She squeezed Dreamflight’s hand and could sense that her friend was snuggled even closer to Rainpace. Willow’s small den was crowded, but at least there was comfort in this gathering of friends, which was more than Willow was receiving.
Kestrel added something about the wrong stories having been shared, and then One-Leg began the real sharing. What he shared was strange, foreign to Beetle’s concept of the healer-gone-mad. To see him jovial, joking, and a part of the tribe. She wondered why she had never really given much thought to what he was like before. To hear how integral he was, and yet, how responsible, Owl seemed like another elf all together.
Farscout’s tale was even more surprising. That he felt pride, respect, and affection for Owl - though Owl had done such atrocities that they had not ever been fully shared - made Beetle wonder. If Farscout could still feel those things for the memories of who Owl was, could the scout ever feel the same for Willow? Could he ever forgive?
Kestrel’s statement, **I think that's what finally pushed him over the edge. We all know what loss can do... and how it feels to us, but have any of us ever been in the situation he was put in, where the losses pile up one on top of the other, and with all his magic, he was powerless to do anything about it?** made Beetle wonder. What would she do if she was rendered so useless?
Then the sharing grew even more painful. The loss, the grief, the stink. Beetle was there and so were her friends. It was almost disorienting, and could have been, had she been alone. Beetle found herself more and more grateful for the grounding offered by those around her. Their warmth and their presence helped her to remember that these were memories and not reality. What would she have done if it had been her family and her friends dying by the day? How could a person not go mad with grief?
At last Blacksnake’s sending rushed over them, full of anguish, horror and sadness. Through him, they witnessed the arrow that pierced an elfin body; they saw Owl’s eyes widening in shock. The moment the grey-haired healer sank to the ground, the sending stopped.
The sudden mental silence filled Willow’s den. It took a while till Rainpace became aware of his surroundings again. He had been so occupied by the shared memories he had not noticed how hard Dreamflight squeezed his hand or how Notch and Foxtail had moved over to hold Beetle tight. He even had not been aware of his own tears streaming over his face. He felt only sadness; sadness for the suffering and grief his ancestors had to bear, for Owl who went mad through his own helplessness, for Easysinger who sacrificed so much of herself by just letting that arrow fly. But most of all his tears were meant for Willow, his strong, willful and proud friend who was so sure she had been right, now proven utterly wrong. How would she bear that? All by herself? Alone?
He looked toward Notch, who was silent, his face almost stony. Rainpace could guess some of what was passing through his friend’s mind, but only because it was a reflection of what they all had just witnessed and shared.
Rainpace’s glance moved from Notch to Beetle. He could tell that she, too, was suppressing the urge to run to Willow immediately. A pair of grass-green eyes met his over Beetle’s head and he was shocked to see the dry horror in Foxtail’s gaze; the experience had left her too broken inside to produce a single tear and a strange, hurt tension thinned her mobile mouth. Then she ducked her head again to nuzzle into Beetle’s dark hair. **Here,** Foxtail sent in every shade of seriousness she could muster. Her arms tightened around Beetle even more for an instant. Then she loosened enough to reach a hand out in the direction of Dreamflight and Rainpace as if offering to better join the circle through touch.
The trapper immediately reached out for his friend’s offered hand; not only to seek comfort for himself but also in an attempt to brush aside the terror in Foxtail’s eyes. He squeezed it lightly and was rewarded with a hard pressure in return. But nothing more. She still buried her face in Beetle’s hair.
He remembered the time of Foxtail´s shunning, together with Beetle and Notch. He remembered how he had secretly watched her loneliness, her bursting into tears at even the smallest incident, the sometimes distraught look in her eyes. Back then, he had tried to stick around as unsuspiciously as possible and to comfort her with his music. He had played a lot of songs those days, hoping his shunned friends would hear him. That had earned him more than one disapproving look from True-Edge or Blacksnake. Rainpace feared, doing the same for Willow this time would stretch the elders’ and - most of all - Windburn´s patience too far. This thought left him feeling helpless.
Next to him, Dreamflight moved for the first time after the sending. She still held his hand tight and offered the other to Notch. The circle closed. Their thoughts were with Willow and that was all they could do for her; all they were allowed to do... It felt very, very little.