She is numb by the time they arrive at the Holiday Inn, and not just on the outside. He left because of me. He couldn’t bear to see me again. He’d asked for time. He’d sworn he’d never loved anyone like he loved her. And yet he still ran, not willing to face the pain that he’d caused while he sought to control his own.
No more crying though, she vows. Giving it up for Lent. If she actually celebrated Lent, that is. The tears she’s already shed have long been dried by the gentle wind along the ride, so by the time the engine dies beneath her, Willow’s eyes are clear, her face somber. For all intents and purposes, she looks like she’s feeling better.
But she doesn’t move. She can’t. Her arms are still locked around Wesley’s waist, almost frightened to let go and more than a little shocked at how surprisingly solid he is before her. Does she want to consider the good luck in running into him, right then, just in time to save her? Not really. She just wants to not let go of the one person who’s not turned away from her today. That doesn’t seem so much to ask, considering.
His fingers are firm where they grasp her wrists, gently prising her free. He astonishes her by not letting them go, encircling them effortlessly within his gloved grip as he rises from his seat. Looking up, she is met with the blank expression of the visor and without thinking, Willow reaches up to tap at it again. It’s too easy to think of him as a stranger like this; she needs to be able to see at least his eyes to know that all of this isn’t some weird sort of Hellmouth nightmare.
He does so without speaking, seemingly waiting for whatever missive to part her lips. She just smiles---well, it’s almost a smile. Her mouth has moved even if it hasn’t met her eyes. But it’s enough, for both of them, and he releases his hold to move to the rear of the bike.
Wesley is silent until he has stepped into the room after her, setting aside his helmet and the satchel he’d removed as she hovers expectantly near the door. “You should go clean up,” he says, gesturing toward the bathroom. “Take those off so that your…injuries can be adequately cleaned.”
He seems reluctant to look at her for some reason, and she frowns when he crosses to the clothes rail, removing one of only three shirts hanging there. “You’ll probably wish to wear those when you leave in the morning,” he says, and she realizes he’s referring to her clothes and the fact that he’s offering her one of his shirts to sleep in and I’m sure Buffy would have something clever to say about right now, but I’m just so tired.
So, she just thanks him and takes the shirt, disappearing into the bathroom to peel away the cotton that has dried to her skin. She winces as the tights come away, seeing her skin stretch along with them, reluctant to part company, only to tear open again with fresh vigor, the scarlet beads trickling down her kneecaps as she starts to bleed again. He shouldn’t have given me a white one, she thinks, as she changes the rest of her clothes. But, though it hangs on her in a size comfortably large, and she has to roll the sleeves up quite a few times in order to have use of her hands, its length stops at the middle of her thighs, leaving its hem stainfree as she steps back into the main room.
He has changed in the time she’s been gone, from the black leather to a navy tee and similarly shaded sweats, but this still isn’t the Wes she remembers. This is someone looking frightfully young, maybe a graduate student she would see roaming around on campus. His glasses are back on his face, though, and with the first aid kit spread out on the nearest of the bed, his position of concern is unmistakable.
Willow pulls the white cotton tight around her thighs as she sits on the edge of the mattress, keeping her eyes down as he kneels before her to minister to her wounds. His touch is light, and the antiseptic stings where the cotton wool catches on the broken skin, but her face remains stoic, all her discomfort registering instead in Wesley’s furrowed brow.
“So what are you doing so far away from Sunnydale?” he finally asks quietly. He’s still not looking at her, and she’s beginning to wonder if she’s grown a huge wart on the end of her nose or something that he doesn’t want to be forced to see for extended periods of time, but she answers him anyway.
“Oz was playing.” Thinking his name was hard enough; it ached even more to have to say it out loud.
“Oh.” Silence. Then, tentatively, “Did you decide against seeing the show?”
“It was cancelled.”
“Oh.” More quiet. The only sound in the room was the plastic rattle of the antiseptic bottle as he twisted the cap back into place. “So, why---?”
And she’s tired of the questions, and because he’s been so nice to her, she tells him, tells him all of it, the words jerky and halting at first about how she’d come hoping to see her old boyfriend, lying to her friends so that they wouldn’t try to stop her or tell her she was hanging onto pipe dreams when she knew exactly all along that that was what she was doing. Then, faster, smoother, streaming forth as she relayed the excitement of wandering around the town, and how it had backfired on her because that was obviously how Oz had seen she was there and run off before the show could even start, leaving her to go heedlessly off to the point where Wesley had seen her.
He remains mute throughout her confession, sitting back on his heels as he listens. And this time, those bright blue eyes bore into hers, never wavering, never judging, just watching and accepting and it almost looks like understanding. It’s so different from spilling it all out to the gang at home. Oh sure, they’d been great at first, but with every look Anya gave her watch, and with every offer from Xander to make a food run, and with Buffy’s incessant need to patrol, it had been obvious they were tired of listening to her. She wasn’t dumb. She was just sad.
He did have something to say, though, and he looked thoughtful as she stopped to gulp in large mouthfuls of air. Somehow, she must’ve forgotten to keep breathing while she was telling him, she thinks.
“Oz is a werewolf,” he says simply. “With a highly attuned sense of smell. He probably didn’t see you at all. You did nothing wrong by enjoying your day in the sunshine. And frankly, if he ran without even deigning to give you an explanation why, I’d say he’s a coward and hardly worthy of any more of your tears, Willow.”
The simplicity of his observation makes her stop, lips parting, almost smiling as she gazes at him in wonder. She hadn’t thought of the smelling thing, which she really should’ve since he’d done it more than once back in Sunnydale. But it was the other, the part that sounded vaguely like a compliment, that took her the most aback. Watcher Wesley wasn’t concerned in how things made you feel. Watcher Wesley was only interested in careful translations of archaic texts, and doing things by the book, and trying to convince everyone that he was the only right one in the room.
Of course, Watcher Wesley didn’t wear leather or tool around the countryside on a motorcycle calling himself a “rogue demon hunter,” either.
“You weren’t on the prowl for a werewolf, were you?” she jokes, trying to shift the conversation away from her. “Is that why you’re coasting the sunny California streets?”
His lips thin, and she wonders for a moment if he’s going to answer her at all, but he only shakes his head. “A Jwa’hra demon. Unfortunately, I…missed it. It’s left town already.” He straightens, and she is forced to bend her neck backward in order to look up at him. I don’t remember him being so tall. “You should rest,” he says. “I’ll set the alarm so that you don’t miss your bus in the morning.”
Her voice stops him as he heads for the bathroom. “Maybe you should come to Sunnydale, too,” Willow suggests. He wants to find a demon; it certainly seems like the most natural thing in the world to offer the Scooby services, especially since he’s hardly a stranger.
This time he actually smiles at her before hesitating at the door. “Not all demons end up at the Hellmouth,” he says, and she can’t tell if he’s kidding or not because it sounds so drastically different than anything Watcher Wesley would’ve said. “But I do appreciate the offer.”
The door is shut before she finds her voice again, but it comes out a whisper, pensive and lost and tremulous in the barren atmosphere of the hotel room. “Thank you for listening to me.”
Even going slowly, the ride is too short, and Wesley chides himself for enjoying the added weight having her behind him gives to the motorcycle. He’s fooled himself into forgetting what it felt like to be lonely, and the sudden onslaught of familiar, especially in the shape of Willow Rosenberg, strips the delusions away. Dallying to further the false sense of camaraderie is foolhardy to his survival, but even when she doesn't pull away once they’ve arrived, it is impossible to let his irritation linger.
She is in need of a friend right now. He is determined to give that to her.
So he doesn’t let go when he gets off, the question of whether she is still crying turning his head to look at her. In what seems to be becoming a characteristic gesture, Willow reaches up to tap at his helmet, and he bares his gaze to her, wondering just what it is she wants, what it is she is going to say.
Confirmation perhaps. A request to get her a different room in spite of the fact that there are two perfectly good beds in his. It would hardly be uncalled for; of course, the gentlemanly thing for him to do would be to offer first, but somehow, Wes can’t bring himself to do it. He’s gone too long hearing only the sound of his own voice or the various snarls and grunts of demons to casually toss aside an opportunity for adult, human conversation.
When she smiles, though, he is startled by the sad resignation in her eyes, as if she’s already decided to catalog her evening escapades as yet another unfortunate occurrence in the life of a Sunnydale citizen. Like she doesn’t have a choice but to bear the pain. And the pang of empathy slicing in his chest takes him by such surprise so that he releases his hold, returning to the semblance of rote work---retrieving his few possessions at the rear of the bike, removing his helmet---in an attempt to regain control.
Too much, and too little, tumbles around inside his brain, searching for order as he leads her to his room, every step anticipatory of her request for someplace else. It never comes, which only makes his thinking even more confused when he finally pushes the door open for her.
She speaks like Willow Rosenberg, she dresses like Willow Rosenberg, and she smiles like Willow Rosenberg.
So why does she seem like only half the Willow Rosenberg I once knew?
Why does she seem like more?
So many possible answers. Her mood throwing him off, his mood throwing him off. She's older, granted only six months or so, but still…
He is distracted for a moment when he sees that she is waiting for him. “You should go clean up.” Yes, her encounter. Focus on her…
And he rips his eyes away when his gaze slides along the curve of her calf instead of staying on her hidden knees, suddenly embarrassed at his obvious behavior. “Take those off so that your…” Don’t say legs. Don’t let her think you’re looking at her legs, you prat. “…injuries can be adequately cleaned.”
The offer of his own shirt for her to sleep in is out of his mouth before he can stop it, though, and Wesley wishes desperately that she will merely construe it as a concern for her clothing and not as anything more. More would be unseemly, and most definitely not his primary intention, though for some reason his body was arguing otherwise.
When she accepts and disappears into the sanctuary of the bathroom, he exhales loudly, frantically grabbing his own clothing to change from the bindings that are now constricting his skin. Just need to breathe, he tells himself. Wash away the detritus of demon hunting. Get Willow sorted, brush my teeth, then a good night’s sleep. It’s been a long day.
Yet his resolve is shattered when she steps from the bathroom and sets her carefully folded clothes by the sink, pale fingers twisting and knotting with each other once they are bereft of something to keep them occupied. She looks both younger and older in his white shirt, short hair burning incandescent in the artificial light, green eyes luminous. It is far too big on her, hiding every hint of femininity beneath its crisp waves. But as she fusses with the cuffs that are miles too long, there is an echo of a breast, a casual promise of maturity that roots him to his spot, and he is frozen as she sits on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to tend to the bleeding knees she exposes for him.
“So what are you doing so far away from Sunnydale?” he finally manages to ask, searching for that normal conversation he’d been dreaming about on the ride to the hotel.
“Oz was playing.”
Oz. The boyfriend. Of course. The other questions come more awkwardly as her replies don’t truly clarify the picture. When she launches into the story of why she’s in town, he sits back and just listens, judging by the raggedness of her voice that tears would be flowing if not for an amazing amount of control on her part and knowing without having been told that these are words she desperately needs to unleash.
He gives her the only rational explanation he can afterward and then hesitates, his heart thumping in his chest as he tentatively rests a hand on her knee. Barely there really. Doesn’t even count as a touch.
“…frankly,” he says, and prays she sees that he means this, that she’d be a fool not to believe him, “if he ran without even deigning to give you an explanation why, I’d say he’s a coward and hardly worthy of any more of your tears, Willow.”
His words act as if he’s switched a light on inside her. The green of her eyes become brighter. She almost smiles. And then there is the Willow he remembers, the cheerful, optimistic one who tackled her problems in a quiet desperation unnoticed by her friends, and he relaxes for the first time since she’s stepped inside his room. He did the right thing. Sharing a few hours of companionship is exactly what both of them needed.
And she certainly doesn’t need to know he probably lost the trail of his prey just to tend to her, so he carefully sidesteps her joking questions before suggesting she sleep. Her eyes are weary, more so than he thinks he’s seen outside of his own mirror lately, and he doesn’t want to be the one to add to her aches.
His heart jumps into his throat, however, when her quiet offer to go to Sunnydale stops him at the bathroom door. Searching her face, he sees no guile and can’t help but wonder if mindreading has become de rigeur for her campus Wicca group. How else to explain her tacit understanding of his very thoughts only hours earlier?
Smiling, he replies, “Not all demons end up at the Hellmouth, but I do appreciate the offer.” Hopefully, she’ll think he’s joking about his hunt and not see that he is in fact referring to himself, disappearing into the bathroom before giving her the opportunity to say anything more.
When he emerges again, she has already crawled under the blankets and fallen asleep, lashes so delicate against her cheeks that they appear as cobwebs in the shadows they create along her cheek. He stands between the beds and gazes down at her in the darkness, fighting the urge to push back the hair that has fallen across her brow.
“Thank you for talking to me,” he murmurs, before sliding between the sanctuary of his own sheets.