She stands by the locked truck, waiting for them to finish whatever it is Wesley was so insistent they discuss. She can see them at the edge of the sand, Manny shuffling in his place as the other man towers over him, Wes wearing that I’m-in-charge-and-you’ll-do-exactly-as-I-s
…inappropriate… respect…won’t tolerate…skewer…
Manny becomes more and more agitated, and she frowns because though it’s obvious something is going between them, Wesley’s body is straight and still and deadly, the dagger still hanging dangerously from his hand. She wonders for a brief moment if he plans on using it on the smaller man, and then shakes her head for being silly. Don’t be a dunderhead. Manny’s not a demony threat.
It’s only then that she notices the line of scarlet trailing down Wesley’s arm, dripping from his fingertips to soak into the sand. He’s bleeding again, she realizes, though he seems oblivious to his wound as he continues talking. Hesitating, she debates whether it’s worth it or not to interrupt their discussion---OK, maybe not the most apt description as Manny isn’t really saying anything in response so probably more of a lecture---and then decides that nothing Wes could be saying merits his passing out from blood loss. So she marches over to their sides, even if it is more like slipping and sliding because of the gritty boardwalk, and reminds herself to yell at him later when Wesley stops talking at her approach.
“You’re bleeding again,” she says.
He looks down then, and frowns. “Oh,” is all he says, and is about to adjust the makeshift tourniquet when Willow’s hands are on him, daubing the drips with a cloth she grabbed from the first aid kit in the back of the truck.
The cut looks worse up close, angry and oozing as the scored edges of the skin outlining it refuse to meet, and she wonders both if he’s going to need stitches and just how much pain he can tolerate because he isn’t making a sound and it looks to her as if it should hurt like heck. She doesn’t look up as she presses the cloth into wound, wincing when he doesn’t, and wishing she didn’t have to be the one to hurt him like this. It’s for his own good, she thinks. The idiot would’ve bled to death by the time he noticed.
“I guess we’re going to have to wait on the pancakes,” she jokes, and is oddly OK with that. It was selfish of her to put her stomach first when he’s been hurt.
“Don’t think I’m letting you sit in the front now,” Manny says. “I just had it detailed. No way do I want you bleeding all over my upholstery.”
“That’s OK,” Willow hears herself saying. “Wesley and I will just sit in the back.” Because being alone with Manny? A huge pile of ewwww.
Both men seem surprised at her announcement but neither question it, staying silent as she waits for Wes to take the cloth from her hand. His fingers linger on hers in the transfer, and only then does she look up, scanning the inscrutable of the sapphire and finding only more questions inside her head. She doesn’t understand why he looks at her that way, as if she isn’t real and might disappear at any given moment, and wants to ask, stopping from doing so only when Manny clears his throat behind them.
“C’mon, Romeo,” he says. “I’ll get you back to your hotel. I’m sure you want me to take care of that bank transfer anyway. Make all your bleeding worth it.”
So they walk back to the truck, each voiceless as internal words maintain rule of their minds, and it isn’t until Manny is easing out of the parking lot that Wesley speaks again.
“Thank you,” he says, and she looks across the truck bed at him, noting how long his legs seem stretched out parallel to hers. He isn’t smiling but she suspects that he wants to, his mouth soft, his eyes kind, and so she encourages him by smiling herself.
“We’re all even steven now,” she replies. “You save me from a demon, I help you with yours. You take care of my cuts…” She gestures toward his arm and the blood-soaked cloth he is pressing to his wound. “…and I take care of yours.”
“Ah. Yes. That…rather balances the books, doesn’t it?”
And for some reason, the awkwardness between them has returned, settling over them like cotton wool, and Willow wonders what she did now, why he has vanished inside his head again. After everything, after all the tears and the talking and the back watching, Wesley was seeming more and more like a friend and not an acquaintance from her no-so-long-ago past, and she liked it. Likes. Present tense. Did I make him mad?
“You will have missed your bus,” he is saying. “Of course, I’ll pay for your new ticket. If you’d like anything else, just say the word. Manny’s employers are paying me very handsomely for this particular job.”
Her bus. She hadn’t even thought of that. Thinking about it stabs somewhere deep inside her chest, and her eyes drop to her hands in her lap, watching them as she bounces along. Sunnydale. Oz-less. Getting back to the mundane and living with the reality of being unextraordinary. Which would be just ordinary if she wanted to be grammatically correct about it. But somehow that sounds even worse.
She doesn’t want to talk about it, so she changes the subject, quizzing him on his demonhunting and clarifying his purposes in doing it. It’s not about the money, he is quick to say, not that she really thought it was but better to have him talking about that than dwelling in the cacophony of her thoughts. And she listens to him regale some of his exploits since leaving the Hellmouth, a few of them surprisingly droll, relaxing and smiling until the laughter comes naturally.
“I can’t wait to tell Buffy about this,” she says.
His face immediately closes at the Slayer’s name. “I’d rather you didn’t.”
She doesn’t understand and it shows in her eyes. “Why?”
Wesley shrugs, his gaze turning to see the hotel looming before them as Manny pulls into the parking lot. “Isn’t it enough to ask you not to say anything?”
Of course it is, but she doesn’t get why he wouldn’t want them to hear about how well he’s doing. She says so, but he doesn’t answer her, only begins gathering his things as the engine is turned off. Before he can climb from the truck, though, she takes the bags from him, shouldering the burden in the face of his injury, and ignoring Manny’s questioning look as she marches for the hotel doors. Stupid, stubborn Englishmen, she grouses. Guess it’s a cultural thing, being all stiff upper lippy. Can’t he see that I mean well?
Of course, meaning well and executing well are two entirely different things in Willow’s experience, and she has the history to prove it. She listens at the door of the room as the two men say their good-byes, maintaining her silence until she and Wesley are inside.
“It’s only Friday,” she says as she drops the bags on the table. She takes a deep breath before her nerve fails her. “And since I don’t have class again until Monday and I don’t have a ride back to Sunnydale anyway, what with the whole missing my bus thing, I was thinking that maybe, if you didn’t have something else you had to do or some other demon to go hunting for, because that would be more than understandable if you did…I mean, that’s your job and everything…” She’s babbling now, lost in her train, and she realizes that he is just staring at her like she’s grown a second head and wants nothing more than to just have the floor open up and swallow her down whole. If we were in Sunnydale, that might could actually happen.
But she’s not in Sunnydale. She’s in Wesley’s hotel room, and she’s making a mess of what she had thought was really a simple proposal.
“What I meant to say was…” Geez, needy much, Willow? But she knows she is, reluctant to give up the camaraderie that she had thought was growing between them, and plunders onward. “…maybe you could give me a ride back. On the motorcycle. You know, maybe give ourselves a mini-vacation after our successful slayage this morning by taking our time getting there.”
And she’s holding her breath, but she doesn’t know why, standing there watching him watch her, feeling the seconds tick away as she waits for him to say something. Anything really. Because if he doesn’t, she’s going to start babbling again to fill the silence and divert some of the attention away from her hugely miscalculated request.
“You don’t have any other clothes.”
He’s not saying no, she realizes, and grins in the face of the lightening weight inside her chest. “Nope, but I do have a credit card I keep for emergencies.”
At first she thinks he means why does she have a credit card, but all too quickly, Willow understands that he is questioning her reason for staying. What do I say? How do I tell him that I’ve felt better about myself in the past twelve hours in his presence than I have in the past six weeks?
So she says the only thing that makes sense to her at the moment. The only thing that she thinks he will believe.
“Because I’d like to have the chance to talk some more. Because…I like the company.”
He can see her out of the corner of his eye, waiting for them to join her at the truck so that they can go get some breakfast, but this has to be done first, these words have to be said. Regardless of how Wes might personally feel, he simply cannot allow Manny to continue treating Willow in the manner he has been.
“That type of behavior is completely inappropriate,” he says. He keeps his voice low, his words even, refusing to show Manny just how disgusted with him he actually is. “Willow deserves every measure of respect that you can offer, and fondling her knee while you’re shifting gears is about as low as you can go without becoming even more blatantly obscene. Now. She might be the type of person who’s willing to overlook such acts, but I’m not. I won’t tolerate you treating her in such a way, either in or out of my presence. And if I learn or see that you’ve done or said something to offend her, I will personally skewer you to the nearest Fyarl demon I find. Do you understand?”
Manny doesn’t speak, only nods vehemently as he shifts back and forth in the sand. His eyes are jumping from Wesley’s face, to the dagger that is twisting in his fingers, his fear shining brightly in their depths.
For a moment, he feels a twinge of guilt but then remembers the lascivious sidle of the man’s hand against Willow’s skirt and steels his resolve. “Good. I trust we won’t have to have this discussion again---.”
He hears her footsteps then, and stops speaking, turning to look at the redhead approach them with a cloth from the supplies dangling from her fingers. I certainly don’t need her to overhear me upbraid him. She would never understand why I had to do it. “You’re bleeding again,” she says.
He hadn’t noticed. When he looks down at his arm, he sees as if for the first time the sticky fluid running in rivulets down his arm. Odd, that. It looks like enough blood for him to have been aware it was seeping from his body.
“Oh,” Wesley says, and reaches up to adjust the tourniquet on his arm, thinking he will just tear another strip from it to clean up the mess he appears to be making.
Her touch stops him, one hand grasping the back of his bicep to hold him steady while she uses the other---the one with the cloth---to wipe away the blood. It is firmer than he would’ve expected, the touch of one who knows what must be done and is set to do it, and he is transfixed as he watches her bowed head, oblivious to the sting of the cut even when she presses the cloth into the wound. Is she wincing for me? he wonders, and then shakes the thought away as whimsical, delusions of more thrust to the wayside.
But then she is joking about missing breakfast, and when Manny comments on not wanting blood stains on his upholstery, Willow’s next words shock him into even more silence.
“That’s OK. Wesley and I will just sit in the back.”
He would’ve suggested it anyway, or insisted on riding in front, but hearing the offer come from her lips makes him stop, his skin warming in the morning sun. When he reaches to take the blood-soaked cloth from her hand, he can’t resist allowing his fingers to remain on hers for that extra fraction of a second, feeling the fine bones beneath the skin, wishing he dared to do more than share a feather touch and wondering just what in hell he thought he was doing by wanting it. She looks up at him, and he is stricken by the clarity of her gaze, the emerald and amber reflecting back at him with an otherworldliness that can only be described as beautiful.
And for some inexplicable reason, he is choked with the desire to kiss her.
Manny’s voice yanks him from the brink of taking that step too far, though, and they walk to the truck in silence, reloading it and situating themselves in the bed on opposite sides, their legs stretched out in front of them in parallel. He watches her through his lashes, questioning his own body’s responses.
It’s not as if he’s lacked the company of pretty girls. If he wants, all he has to do is walk into a bar and begin talking to whoever catches his eye. Invariably, the accent is enough to seduce even the most reticent of women. Not that he has---well, twice maybe, but that was only when the loneliness got too unbearable and the solace of a warm body pressed into his was worth the revulsion he would feel the following morning.
So what is it about Willow? He doesn’t know. He only knows that he’s grateful for her presence, for the concern she is exhibiting for him, and so he thanks her before he can stop himself.
When she comments on the score being even, Wesley is frozen inside, the crash to reality her words bring jolting him from the luxurious reverie of his mood.
“Ah. Yes. That…rather balances the books, doesn’t it?”
And it’s better this way, at least that’s what he tells himself, and he hides within the wounds of his bruised ego, chastising himself for considering anything otherwise and wondering how he can make it up to her.
“You will have missed your bus,” he says. “Of course, I’ll pay for your new ticket. If you’d like anything else, just say the word. Manny’s employers are paying me very handsomely for this particular job.”
There. That should make things better.
Only…he’s not sure it has when a flicker of what looks like distress clouds her eyes, tearing them from looking at him to being absorbed by her hands in her lap. When she speaks again, her voice is low, questioning his motives for the demonhunting.
“Oh, it’s not about the money,” he hastens to explain. “It’s about doing the right thing.” And atoning for all my mistakes in Sunnydale, he adds silently, but there is no way he wants her to know about his incredible sense of failure.
So he distracts her with some of his more colorful stories, watching as his words slowly draw her back from whatever abyss she’d slipped into, taking pride as she smiles and then laughs out loud at his adventures.
“I can’t wait to tell Buffy about this,” she says, and he immediately feels the world drop out from beneath his feet.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” he replies, but when she questions him, he can’t bring himself to tell her the truth. How is it possible to explain the sense of idiocy that overwhelms him when either of the Slayers are mentioned? That he knows he cocked things up in Sunnydale, but that he’s trying to better himself and would rather they not continue to perceive him as the jester in their court of heroes?
But all he can say is…“Isn’t it enough to ask you not to say anything?”
He is deaf to any more of her words, even when she takes the bags from him and marches toward his room. He watches the skirt swirl around her legs, the strong set of her shoulders, and feels Manny’s eyes on him but doesn’t care. Their goodbyes are perfunctory, repeating the details of the transfer for the job, and it isn’t until he has unlocked the door, allowing Willow to go inside and relieve herself of her load, that he hears her again.
“…maybe give ourselves a mini-vacation after our successful slayage this morning by taking our time getting there.”
He’s staring at her, and he knows that, but her words have shocked him to his boots. Because…did she really just suggest they spend even more time together? Not that he was averse to the proposition. On the contrary, the same possibility had lurked beneath each and every one of his words since waking this morning. But why?
Does it matter?
Maybe she’s just being nice.
“You don’t have any other clothes.” There. That gives her the opportunity to back out of it, to realize that he understands the grander implications and will not hold it against her for being practical.
“Nope, but I do have a credit card I keep for emergencies.”
And she’s smiling---smiling!---as she speaks, not taking it back but making it even more real by overcoming his proffered hurdle with ease, and because he has to know---how can he accept such a proposal otherwise---the question tumbles from his mouth just as he’d thought it.
There is a moment of silence, but her grin doesn’t go away, only softens as she looks at him, unwavering.
“Because I’d like to have the chance to talk some more. Because…I like the company.”
He replies before his brain can talk him out of it. “I’d like that as well. Having you around has been, by far, the highlight of this particular trip.”
When her eyes duck, the faint stain of a blush on her cheeks, he lowers his head, suddenly shocked at his own forwardness. Not that she hadn’t initiated it, but it wasn’t normally like him to be so upfront about his wishes. Perhaps it’s time for me to reassess such formality around Willow, he thinks. And it’s a good thought, one that warms him as he settles with the first aid kit on the bed.
Yes. Perhaps she really will understand. Stranger things have been known to happen.