Dawn was coming quickly. A brightening red painted the low clouds slung over the mountains on the eastern horizon, and the air felt heavy. It would rain sometime soon. The first of the day-birds had just awakened and its solitary song broke the silence of near-morning with crisp, confident notes.
Beetle sighed as she let herself sink into the water of the Near Hot-Springs. She knew Willow would offer to heal the muscle strain and fatigue of a night’s travel, but Beetle didn’t want that — not yet. Sometimes it was good to feel the pain, to build up strength. And it did feel good to have the slow pressure of warm, flowing water soothing her aches and pains.
She smiled as she heard Willow’s approach behind her. The healer had just finished putting their packs and Beetle's newly-made leathers into a small cave nearby to protect them from the soon-to-come rain, and had unrolled their sleeping furs while Beetle got into the water. “You’re coming in, aren’t you?” she asked the healer.
“Mmm,” Willow answered, but she sounded distracted. She was eating a travel cake, and both Rooter and Sky were watching her actions intently, in hopes they might get a piece of the food, too. “Maybe in a little while.” She ignored the wolves who paced around her, begging, and took large bites of the tough food, hardly bothering to chew it before swallowing. The travelling had made her hungry.
Beetle turned and pushed herself up on a nearby rock so that she was half-in half-out of the water. They had come here to help get Willow’s mind off the unwrapping and healing of Fadestar that was planned for two nights from now. Even though Honey’s unwrapping had been successful, Willow was understandably nervous about the next. But so far, the trip hadn’t accomplished the intended goal. “It’s relaxing,” Beetle said. Then she sent, **You’ve been pushing yourself every night, trying to get ready for the next unwrapping. It’s all right to rest for a little while. It might help you sleep better, too!**
“I’ll re-braid your hair for you…” Beetle offered hopefully.
Willow studied her lovemate for a moment. Then, without a word, the healer seemed to half-smile, and stuffed the last of the cake into her mouth. She was still chewing as she pulled off the rest of her leathers and carefully untangled the bee tie from the end of her hair. Beetle watched her with open appreciation. Finally, Willow came to the water's edge and slowly slipped in.
When Willow hissed as the hot water first touched her skin, Beetle felt her stomach tense with nervousness. “It’ll feel better in a moment,” she promised quietly. ‘Why did I say that? She knows that. What am I doing? Why did I press for her to get in the water? She does need to relax, but she doesn’t need me telling her what to do. That’s not why we agreed to come on this journey.’
She was taken by surprise when Willow suddenly pulled her close. “You're tense,” the healer said softly, and her eyes met Beetle's. Willow smiled at her, and there was affection in that gaze. Willow's hands slid up Beetle's back and rested on her shoulders. “I could fix that for you...”
Beetle knew Willow was trying her best not to think of what was waiting for her back at the Holt, but the healer just couldn’t not use her powers, even for an evening.... however, the invitation wasn’t an unwelcome one. “Mmmhmmm,” Beetle murmured happily, anxieties forgotten. “You could… if you want to.”
Willow grinned, “Fine, then. Twist my arm.” Then, she slowly began rubbing Beetle's shoulders and back, holding her close all the while.
Beetle felt herself smiling as she relaxed into Willow’s embrace. She hadn’t planned on asking Willow to soothe her this way, but she was glad her lovemate had offered. She would return the favor with a massage… when Willow was finished.
A cold drop of water on her skin was the only warning she had before the skies burst and a torrent of rain was coming down at them.
“Oh, lung rot!” Willow swore as she let Beetle go, scrambled out of the water, and hastily gathered up the leather clothing she'd left strewn all over the rocks just a short while before. “I hate putting on wet leathers!” She dashed toward the shelter nearby, screaming, “High Ones, that's rutting cold!” at the sheets of rain.
Beetle had to laugh, her tension gone. The rain splashing her head and shoulders was cold, but the water beneath her was more than comfortable — actually, the cold water felt refreshing. Still, she had no interest in remaining out in the rain without her lovemate. She hurried out of the hot-springs, getting colder by the moment.
Shivering, Beetle arrived in the little cave on Willow's heels. The healer had dropped the pile of wet leathers on the ground. They landed there with a wet plop.
“S-stupid,” Willow hissed between chattering teeth. Her skin was pricked with gooseflesh. There was an edge to her voice that hadn't been there just moments ago at the springs. “I knew b-better than to leave those th-there. They're s-s-soaked.”
Beetle’s teeth were starting to chatter, too, as she said, “Th-they’ll d-d-dry. O-only th-th-the t-t-top is s-s-soaked.” She quickly moved the leathers to a spot away from the mouth of the den and lay them out to dry. Returning to where Willow stood, the torrent of rain in the backdrop, she looked at her lovemate.
Willow’s face was a mixture of emotion — a mix of annoyance and frustration. It seemed Willow always wore her feelings plainly for others to see, of late. Willow’s face had droplets of water streaming down it, and very wet hair hung limply around her, some of it sticking to her face and neck.
“Y-y-you’re s-s-soaked,” Beetle managed to say, her own face bursting into a grin. As she closed the gap between them, hoping they could warm each other up, she couldn’t help but start laughing.
The irritation on Willow's face seemed to melt away at the sound of Beetle's laughter. Willow arched her eyebrows and managed to snort, “And you're not?” before she burst out laughing, too. She looped an arm around Beetle's waist and led her back to where the packs had been stowed and the sleeping furs had been unrolled. She sat down on the bedroll and tugged Beetle down with her before grabbing a fur and pulling it around them both.
Giggles shook them both again for a long while, until stitches in their sides made them hurt from laughing so much. “Owww…” Beetle laughed, holding her sides. “I don’t know if I’ve ever laughed like this before. It feels good.”
Beetle propped herself up on her elbow and grinned. Willow had tears streaming down her face. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair was a mess. Beetle hadn’t seen Willow this happy in a very long time. “Laughter suits you, you know.”
The compliment seemed to take Willow by surprise. Her cheeks looked like they flushed a little more brightly, and she glanced away. “Well, uh...” she mumbled, and then, after a moment, she sat up and reached behind her to pull her wet hair around to her front. Her gaze returned to Beetle's and she smiled that same, affectionate smile from before. Willow began to unravel what was left of her braid. “Mmm,” she finally grunted. The corners of her mouth were still turned upward, and Beetle decided the compliment had been accepted.
Choosing not to say anything else about it, Beetle pushed herself to a sitting position and motioned for Willow to move a little. "Here, let me help you with that. It's sure to be snarly after getting wet, and then I can re-braid it for you."
“Probably should let it sit a while undone,” Willow said as she tossed her braid over her shoulder and turned so her back faced Beetle. “But I'll take you up on braiding it later. Maybe before we leave tonight.”
Beetle took the bottom of the long braid in her hand. Beetle's had been longer once... before she had burned a lot of it off in an accident. After that, she'd kept it short, but recently... she had been thinking of letting it grow out again. She laughed at herself.
"What?" Willow asked.
"Oh, nothing. Just a silly thought," Beetle responded, trying to picture herself with longer hair. With the curls she had, it was bound to be more wavy than others' in the tribe. Foxtail's hair was curly, but it was more of a spiral. And she had cut her hair. So had Honey, for that matter. Beetle didn't want her hair to get as long as Whispersilk's or Nightstorm's, or even Willow's for that matter. Maybe just below her shoulder blades... that could be interesting. But it would take so long to get there, and she was comfortable with her shorter hair.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Willow looked over her shoulder at her. “I don't think 'nothing' has ever made you get so quiet.”
Beetle's face flushed. She didn't know why the thought of letting her hair grow out made her nervous... what if Willow didn't like it? "It's just a thought I've entertained for... oh, I don't know... about letting my hair grow out. I haven't, though, because it seems like it would just take too long, and I'm used to it this way. Anyway, it's just a silly thought. That's all. I'm happy with it the way it is, and I don't have the patience to let it grow."
It was Willow's turn to be silent, and for a little while, Beetle thought the healer must have figured her idea about long hair was just as silly as she had made it out to be. Beetle was about to go back to unbraiding Willow's hair when the healer said, “You... wouldn't necessarily have to wait.”
"I wouldn't?" Beetle asked, surprised. "My hair grows slower than the flow of frozen sap!"
Willow blurted, “I could grow it for you... if you wanted me to.” The hint of a smile once again touched her lips.
Beetle grinned. "You could grow it for me? Now that's an idea!" She thought about it. Within moments, her hair could be longer. She wouldn't have to wait years for it to grow out! "I like it! Would you?" She was getting excited. "Do you want to do it now?" She had forgotten Willow's braid in her excitement, but the thought of having longer hair, seeing what it was like, had her curious.
Beetle's excitement seemed to make Willow less tense, and by this time, the healer had turned back around completely to face her lovemate. “I can now — if you want. And if you don't like it, we can just cut it to make it like it was before.”
Beetle grinned. "That's a great idea!"
Willow paused for just a moment, clearly thinking about something, and then reached out and gently took Beetle's face in her hands. The healer's eyes met hers briefly before she closed them, and then the now-familiar, pale-yellow glow enveloped Beetle in a warm, soothing light.
Her scalp tingled all of a sudden, and Beetle could almost feel her hair growing longer. She glanced to her side and, indeed, her brown locks were lengthening. She watched them pass her chin and then spill down over her shoulders. Then, both the glowing and the growing stopped.
The healer opened her eyes, studied Beetle for a moment, and then smiled at her. “Pretty,” Willow whispered. She traced soft fingertips over Beetle's cheek. “It looks good on you.”
Beetle smiled back. She was glad Willow liked the longer hair, and she hoped she would. She wanted to go outside and find a clear puddle or pond to look at it in, but the rain would prevent that. "Show me?" she asked Willow.
She saw it, then, just as Willow had seen it. Her short curls were gone. Instead, long, brown, layered waves framed her face nicely, and it brought out the rich color of her eyes. Some of the long ends of it stuck to her still-damp shoulders. It would have taken moons to grow out as long as Willow had coaxed it.
The longer hair looked better than she had imagined it could. She definitely wasn't going to cut it off. "Oh... Willow, it looks... I look... Thank you!" Beetle said happily, throwing her arms around her lovemate.
Willow squeezed Beetle and held her close for a long time. When she let go, she started to tease the end of Beetle's hair with a finger. It tickled. When Beetle shivered, Willow pulled her lovemate's hair aside and began to nibble on her neck.
**Like it. Like you. Want to finish what the rain interrupted earlier,** Willow sent. Her breath sent another shiver down Beetle's spine.
The trip had been successful, after all. As the rain continued to pour outside the little cave, worries of the near future were, at least temporarily, forgotten.