(See "Linked Stories" for others related to this storyline.)
The evening was warm - warm enough to cast any overwraps away and to lounge about in light clothes that let the skin breathe. Willow , as always, was more than happy to do so. She tucked her messily-braided hair behind her and casually leaned back into the large crook of a tree. She licked her fingers. They were still deliciously sticky; mother moon hadn't even crawled up the sky a half-finger's length since she had raided that bee-tree. At her side she cradled a small basket half-full of beesweets and honeycomb. Willow took one last satisfied look at the basket's precious contents and covered it with a thin piece of leather to keep the bugs away.
"Oooh! Ooooh! Beesweets Highthing bring home much beesweets tonight!"
Berryflop zipped toward Willow and landed on her shoulder despite her attempts to shoo it away. She sighed. So much for keeping the honey safe from pests.
"Yes. Now go away," Willow grumbled. "I've got plans for this honey, and you're not a part of them."
"Aww! Berryflop just want one little taste!"
"No. We've tried that before. One taste, and then you'll want more. There won't be any left by the time you've had enough tastes."
Berryflop pouted and stared longingly, deep in thought, at the basket tucked securely at Willow 's side.
"Berries!" the preserver shrieked, leaping into the air. "Berryflop find sweet, juicy berries! Berryflop trade berries for beesweets!"
Willow 's expression shifted. Berries could be tasty, and could make this evening she had planned all the sweeter. Her gaze shifted to the creature flitting beside her. "All right. One honeycomb for some berries. That's all. You have to bring them here, to me, and no beesweets until I see they're not green like they were last time."
"Berryflop do!" the bug said and flitted away.
"And not one word about the honey to anyone!" she called out after the preserver. The last thing she wanted right now was the whole holt begging her for beesweets.
"What about me?" came the smooth inquiry from the base of the tree. Willow sat up and peered down the trunk to see Notch's smokey green eyes gazing up at her. He grinned at her. "I was the one who suggested you get the beesweets, after all."
The corner of Willow 's mouth curled up in amusement. "Suggested? I recall your saying, 'You should make yourself useful and raid that big bee tree we saw south of the willow grove.'"
Notch's feigned attempt at a guilty look nearly brought Willow to guffaws. "Well, by useful I meant that... well, you haven't brought back honey for a while..."
"And I haven't been chased by bears halfway back to the holt for a while, either. I had to throw two bits of comb to them just to get them to leave me alone." She purposefully licked her sticky fingers again. "So... I don't think I can just give this honey away."
With a look of mock-surprise, Notch said, "Well, if you're not giving it away, I suppose I'll just have to come up and take it from you."
"Oh, no! You wouldn't!" Willow breathily gasped, shaping her mouth into an exaggerated O.
With one fluid leap, Notch landed on the branches just below the large crook in the tree. With the next, he was perched beside Willow . He slid down to snuggle comfortably next to her.
"You have beesweets on your cheek," he whispered in her ear, then leaned slightly to lick the spot of honey away. "I thought you were going to wait on me before you ate any."
Willow shivered slightly and half-closed her eyes. "And I thought you were going to be here a long time ago."
"I'm here now," Notch answered, nuzzling Willow 's neck. As Willow tipped her head back, eyes closing the rest of the way, he reached over to the basket and, as silently as possible, pulled back the leather covering. He almost managed to stick his finger into the honey before Willow slapped his hand away. He grinned sheepishly as she arched an eyebrow at him. "I just wanted a little taste!"
"Mmm hmm, and maybe I'll just save this for myself," Willow replied, pushing the basket behind her. She grinned. How many times had she and Notch played this little game? More times than either could probably count, and yet neither of them seemed to grow tired of it.
Notch chuckled, then bent to nuzzle at Willow 's neck again. Willow chuckled, too. As Notch's hands moved to undo the laces of her sleeveless tunic, she knew the time for games had ended.
She felt Notch's hands glide over her shoulders, pushing the material downward on her arm and she shivered. She felt Notch's warm breath hovering near the skin there, anticipated the feel of his lips where his breath was.
He brushed his lips softly against the skin of her shoulder, trying to tickle her. It did tickle.... But then something felt...so... strange. Something she couldn't quite place. She jumped and Notch looked up.
Willow shook her head, trying to rid herself of the strange feeling. It seemed to be better now. "Nothing. I think I just got a little too warm."
"I can help fix that," Notch promised with a grin. He wrapped an arm around Willow 's waist and began to untie the rest of the laces on her tunic. Willow pressed her cheek against his and willed herself to relax.
The strange feeling came rushing back like river water when an ice dam burst.
What was happening? He was...under her skin? No... she was under his skin. She had the sensation they were fusing together, or that they would stick if they kept in contact. The first pangs of panic tugged at her gut.. Why could she feel his hands moving before they actually moved? She tore her mind away from that sensation and was suddenly drawn to Notch's blood rushing through his veins. It coursed through his body on winding paths until it reached his heart. His heart... was pounding... in his chest.... If she could reach out, she could almost touch it....contracting, relaxing, contracting, relaxing. The rhythm of its beating filled her ears, pounded in her mind like a cub banging on a drum. Louder. Louder. It threatened to make her head burst. Bump-bump. Buh-dump. Bump-bump. Buh-dump. Too much. Too much. Too much.
"Too much!" Willow cried. She pushed Notch away, wide-eyed, scrambling up from her prone position as if she were drowning.
"What? What's wrong?" Notch asked, looking just as shocked as she did. He tried to reach for Willow 's shoulder and she shrank away from him as they made contact again. " Willow?"
"Don't feel good. Got to go," she blurted, holding her head. Dizzily, she scrambled around Notch and to the edge of the crook, overturning the basket of honey in the process. Without so much as a look back at him, she hurried down the tree and disappeared into the dark.
"Berryflop bring berries!" the preserver chirruped as it arrived with a small preserver-silk sling full of all the ripe, juicy fruit it could carry. It dropped its cargo in shock when it spied the overturned basket and the precious amber liquid trickling down the side of the tree like sap.
"Highthings spill beesweets!" it cried, then tried to rescue one of the honeycombs for itself. It looked to Notch, hoping for some help before all the honey was lost. "No-Fear Highthing want beesweets?"
Notch could only shake his head dazedly as he stared off in the darkness, wondering had just happened.