(Ed. Note: This story is related to the events in "Explosive Experience (Part 1)") and "Explosive Experience (Part 2)".)
“I still don't understand why you insist,” Beetle said with a sigh. She sat with her head still enough, but her dissatisfaction with the situation was obvious. The normally cheerful elf had her arms crossed, feet fidgeting restlessly on the ground and rear end squirming slightly on the tree-stump that served as her seat. Behind her, her mother clicked her tongue.
“Because I've known you all your life, oh cub o' mine,” Starskimmer hummed, serene in the face of her daughter's displeasure. “And I know your cycles, sure as the Child Moon's. You're heating up on a particular project again, I hear a little bird whisper.” The fingers of her left hand stroked through Beetle's flow of hair, straightening and loosening the chestnut strands. Delicate, but resolute. In her right hand, an obsidian blade rippled as it worked itself into ever-increasing sharpness.
Dreamflight. Beetle felt a touch of anger at her friend. Dreamflight and Willow were the only two elves with whom she'd shared her renewed interest in bat-dung and sulfur, picked up again after many turns of the seasons where other things had held her attention, and she hadn't meant for them to pass the tale on. But perhaps Dreamflight had been a mistake, considering just how she found out about Beetle's experiments last time. It still didn't justify her telling Beetle's mother, of all tribemates -– though at least she hadn't told Windburn.
“But I know how to be careful this time!” she stressed. “That's just the way we learn things -– by making mistakes.”
“By surviving mistakes,” Starskimmer countered dryly. “We don't learn much otherwise.”
“And anyway I don't see how cutting my hair would make a difference!”
Her mother sighed. “I can't stop you doing what you do,” she said. “You're grown -– rather more grown than you were last time, even. But we can reduce some risks. Like the risk of your hair catching fire.” She sunk her fingers down into Beetle's hair and ruffled and rumpled it until the younger elf yowled. “And the risk you took by going at it alone! So promise me now that you'll never do that again, or I'll clip off your ears, too.”
“I promise, I promise!” They were fair points both, Beetle thought with a sigh, her shoulders sinking as Starskimmer set to work. Well, the latter was, at least. She had learned that lesson. But the sacrifice of her hair was a completely excessive measure. Willow had grown her locks out for her -– a small and beautiful gift, one she'd cherished both for itself and for knowing that her lovemate adored it. It was unfair that she'd have to choose between keeping the style that her lovemate preferred, and assuaging her mother's worries. Though hardly neglectful, Starskimmer was so easy-going with her cubs that when she did fret, it left Beetle feeling strangely cornered and patronized. “But I have learned,” she groused. “Nothing bad will happen, except Willow will come back from the hunt and be disappointed at my hair being short again.”
Starskimmer snorted. “Or she'll be disappointed in me, for letting you go through with this!” But Beetle knew that this wouldn't be the case, no matter what happened. Her lovemate understood her, and understood Beetle's need for freedom after her own fashion. No matter how much more focused and responsible the healer had grown, she still understood, better than many in the tribe, that you could only protect someone so far by holding them back.
She raised her hand and wrapped her fingers about a thick lock of hair just over her left ear. Not much compared to what was being shorn overall, but she held tightly onto it nonetheless. “Not this,” she told her mother as Starskimmer's knife stopped just shy of her hand. “Just leave me this bit of Willow's gift.”
“Your hair isn't magical now, cub,” Starskimmer said wryly.
“It's not the hair itself! It's the point. At least leave it until she returns from the hunt and I can explain why we did this. It's not much, if this catches fire it's only my ear that'll be burned — “ she knew that her mouth had run away from her by her mother's appalled hiss. But still, Starskimmer relented. She left the lock untouched and begun to cut at the newly trimmed bulk of Beetle's hair instead, giving the curls a new bobbing shape.
“It's your ear,” the rockshaper said through gritted teeth. “If you're so determined, trimming just seems like expedience. By Burn's burr-stuffed buttcrack, sometimes I think your older brother's the easy one!”
Beetle could only roll her eyes. “Mother. Nothing's going to happen.”
“What happened?!” Willow gasped.
Among the furs, under the bandages wrapped round and round her head, Beetle squirmed and tried to look very, very small. Her other instinct was to sit up and reach towards her lovemate, but Dreamflight, sitting at her bedside, pushed her firmly down again.
“She went playing with bat-dung and fire again,” the weaver said glumly. “I told her —“
“You told my mother!” Beetle protested.
“And it's a good thing I did! If she hadn't cut your hair, your whole scalp would've been burned raw, instead of just your ear!”
“Let me see.” Willow crossed the distance from the den mouth to Beetle's bedside in two long strides and knelt there opposite Dreamflight. The herbalist sighed softly as her lovemate's magic eased the last of the pain that Cloudfern's brews couldn't quite get at. Before Willow could quite sink completely into the healing trance, Beetle took her hand.
“I'm sorry,” she mumbled. “I don't know if you should heal me. Maybe I deserve the scar...”
“Don't be ridiculous,” snapped Dreamflight, but although Willow's eyebrows shot up, she didn't say the same at once. Instead the glow receded from her fingers and she looked at her lovemate, then at Dreamflight. The weaver took a moment to process that look, then blew out an impatient breath through her nose. Her voice was sharp with concern. “Fine. You two talk through it. But if you're going to be stubborn, Beetle, I'll -– I'll -– I'll tell your mother again!” With a last imploring look at Willow, she rose and stepped out of the den.
Beetle sighed. It was a lot harder to be annoyed at Dreamflight's threat to meddle again when her last intervention had proved so timely. She leaned her head into Willow's touch as her lovemate cupped her face. “You cut your hair?” the healer asked.
“Mother cut it.” Beetle still scowled a little at the memory. “I was mad, but it turned out she was right. I didn't know what I was doing and I took a stupid risk again. I didn't go alone this time!” she added quickly before Willow could also glare at her. “Dreamflight was with me. We were testing those crystals I found in the bat-dung, remember I told you about that? I didn't expect the fire to love them so much. And I guess I shouldn't have looked so closely...”
She chanced a glance at her lovemate. Willow still wasn't glaring, but she did have an exasperated sort of look. Guilt gnawed deep at Beetle's gut. “I know I was stupid,” she said. “It's all my own fault. I should have listened to Dreamflight and to Mother. I didn't want Mother to cut my hair short, I asked her to leave a lock of it until I could explain it to you, but instead I went and got that burned away...”
She only realized she was rambling, hoping somehow that her full confession would ease that look on Willow's face, when the healer cut it. “Who cares about that!” she said. “I'll grow it all right back when I heal you -– so can I finally heal you now?”
Beetle blinked. She's annoyed with me about that? “But I don't deserve —“
“Ra'inta,” Willow cut her off again. Beetle's good ear perked at the name. She stared up at the healer. Willow had a crooked smile on her face as she opened her mind in sending. **Always curious. That's who my lovemate is. Love her for it. Won't smother her like others wanted to smother me.**
“Oh!” Beetle said. A fresh wave of stupid-feeling flowed over her, this one sunny and warm. She'd known, hadn't she? She'd known that Willow would understand, that this was exactly what she would say. The guilt she owed her mother and Dreamflight, and her other friends and family, remained, but the cold weight that she had carried while waiting for Willow's return from the hunt eased and melted like ice falling away.
“It's still pretty stupid to stick your face in the fire,” Willow added, smirking slightly now at her lovemate's look of surprise. She began to cautiously undo the wrapping over Beetle's head and burned ear in businesslike preparation for healing. “But I think none of us will let you do that again when we come with you to your cave. I certainly won't.” She made a face at the burns she found under the bandages. “If you want a punishment, I'll play the sticky Preserver.”
Beetle snickered. “You sing much better, though.” She could already feel the delicious warmth of the healing magic over her ear, mending the cracked and blistered skin. Willow's eyes were half lidded with concentration but not completely shut – the injury was a relatively small one, so didn't take everything out of the healer. Beetle was grateful for that, glad that she could still send to Willow without snapping her mild trance. **Thank you for understanding. I'm so sorry I worried you. I'll be much more careful, I promise.**
Willow didn't answer in sending or out loud. But even as the last finger-breadths of skin smoothed out, Beetle felt it tickle, and the tickle run down her face. A single lock of hair was growing again just over and in front of her left ear. She raised a surprised hand into it, and found her fingers brushing against Willow's own, just as the last of the healing aura faded away.
“See?” Willow murmured as she lay her head against Beetle's shoulder. “I told you I'd grow it right back. I can do the rest of your hair too.”
The herbalist thought about it for a moment, but then shook her head. She'd learned from her mistake. Again. “I think this is fine,” she said. “This way I can be careful, but also always have something to remind me who I'm being careful for. I know how to watch out for it now.” Willow gave a satisfied chuckle, and Beetle echoed it. “But I'm getting myself a bandana, just in case!”