Nothing has ever tasted as good as the stack of pancakes she devours without even thinking. Hot and fluffy with the syrupy weight soaking it down, it’s all Willow can do not to groan out loud from the sheer pleasure of the explosion of taste within her mouth, her teeth barely having to work to chew as each bite almost dissolves on her tongue, leaving behind the hint of maple that begs her for even more.
Wesley seems amused by watching her eat, managing only one bite to every five of hers. His eyes follow the path of her fork as it reaches her mouth, then lingers there to see the ecstasy flush her cheeks as she savors her food. “When was the last time you ate?” he asks her at one point.
“Too long ago,” she replies with a grin, and just takes an extra-big bite next, satisfying herself with his responding smile.
Then all too quickly, they’re gone, and she’s sitting there with an empty plate, a freshly refilled glass of orange juice---because coffee is definitely of the bad, no way am I going to tell Wesley how nutso it made me on the bike---and a smile, waiting for him to finish his own lunch before swallowing her nerve and asking if it would be all right to get dessert, too.
She hasn’t forgotten his hand on hers. OK, so maybe he’d been wearing gloves and really, it was only to lead her into the diner, but the memory of the firm command of his fingers around hers still makes her head swirl in delighted confusion. Why hadn’t she pulled away? Easy peasy. She didn’t want to. There is something infinitely safe about Wesley, an edge that he projects now that he never used to, and it both makes her want to tuck herself into his side and stand up straight next to him, hiding from and facing whatever might come all at the same time. Which just makes all this that much more weirder.
He would probably think she’s a basketcase for freaking out on the motorcycle too, she reasons. Oz is long gone and just the sight of the club is enough to turn her into that scared little girl she so despises, the one who falls apart at hearing the truth in a bouncer’s words, the one who runs and runs and ends up almost getting killed as a result. Would Oz have even cared if something had happened to her? she can’t help but wonder. And the little voice inside her scolds her for forgetting his last words, how he’d never loved anything like he loved her. Oz is a good person, just a little…confused.
It didn’t stop him from leaving, though.
So she talks about anything but, focusing her attention away from friends who seem like more and lovers who seem like less, prattling on about commandos who go lurking in the night and how her classes are going and Spike’s inefficacy at being a vampire anymore. All things about Sunnydale---because really, that’s all she knows---but superficial, avoiding the more intimate aspects of her life that she’s not so sure he wants to hear anyway.
And why is that? Why does the issue of Sunnydale spook him so badly?
“Oh, and Cordelia moved to Los Angeles,” she offers as he sets down his fork and wipes his mouth. “Working for Angel, if you can believe that.”
He seems perplexed by her announcement. “I’d thought she’d said she wanted to be an actress,” he muses.
“Oh, she’s says that’s still happening. She’s just doing the crimefighting with Angel thing in order to pay the bills.” And then Willow stops, the implication of his few words sinking in. “How did you know about her wanting to be an actress?” she asks without even considering the consequences of her question. “I mean, not that it’s all that surprising to me considering, hello, drama queen, but…that just doesn’t seem like Watcher Wesley need-to-know information there.”
The light that has been gleaming in his eyes throughout her babbling dims, and he turns his head to get the attention of the waitress. “I’m no longer a Watcher, remember,” he chides gently. “And I know about the acting because Cordelia told me.”
She bites at her lip, her inner gossip dying to ask for details, but the look on his face stops her. Instead, she steers the conversation toward his first statement and waits for him to respond.
“Apparently, I’m somewhat of an embarrassment to the Council,” he finally says. He’s unable to meet her eyes, his spoon swirling inside his coffee cup, clinking musically in the quiet din of the restaurant. “I wouldn’t dream of asking to be reinstated at this point.”
“You’re too hard on yourself.” She waits until he looks up at her and feels her insides twist at the disbelief shining back. “I saw you today, remember? Manny was totally in awe of you, and the way you fought with that Jwa’hra demon? Even Buffy would be impressed.” She means the last as a compliment, and maybe if she’d used anyone other than the Slayer as an example, it might’ve worked. But his delight at her sentiment quickly vanishes as she finishes speaking, and he is back to unnecessarily stirring his coffee again. It must be cold by now.
“And here I’d hoped to impress you,” he jokes offhandedly.
Except it’s not so offhanded, and the ache behind his choice of words makes her eyes go wide. “But you did that,” she says automatically, because she doesn’t understand why he thinks otherwise. “I thought I made that clear. You were amazing this morning, Wesley.”
“Didja need something?”
She wants to yell at the waitress for her really sucky timing, but Wesley seems grateful for the distraction so instead she puts forward her brightest smile. Smiling when she feels like screaming is an old standby for her. “How about some pie?” she posits and though the waitress is the one who nods, it isn’t for her ears that Willow intends the query.
And now he’s looking at her, and his eyes are solemn---so blue, god, glasses are wasted on this man---and she is so lost in those bright depths that she doesn’t even hear his response, or see the waitress move away, or feel his hand as it settles over hers on the table. “Huh?” she finally manages, and has to literally shake her head from her daze, because what the hell? Just Wesley, remember. “What was that?”
“I said it’s too gorgeous of a day to be wasting it inside,” he repeats. “I’d like to take you for a ride, if you don’t mind. On the motorcycle. It would be a nice distraction, don’t you think?”
She does think, and she says so, smiling but meaning it this time. When the pie shows up at the table, carefully wrapped and ready for the excursion, he tosses some bills onto the table without even looking at the check---big tipper, yet another surprise---and slides from the booth, standing and pulling out his gloves from his pocket as he waits.
Then it’s outside, and on the bike, her arms back around his waist as if they’d never left, and the road is singing beneath the wheels as he veritably flies from the parking lot. No more hesitancy as he maneuvers the motorcycle onto the freeway, their speed growing and growing until the wind is wrapping itself around her arms, raising gooseflesh as it thrums her muscles into exhilarating pulses. And she would swear on a stack of Bibles that she is flying, that if she opens her eyes, the world will be far below her, hiding behind a wash of clouds. But she doesn’t dare. She doesn’t want to destroy the sense of freedom riding behind Wesley brings.
And why it’s there in the first place, she has no idea.
All too quickly, he is pulling off the road, weaving the bike around the steep curves of a mountain before coming to a stop at its apex. “We’re here,” he says as he pulls his helmet off.
“And where’s here?” she counters, mimicking his actions, shaking her hair free once the helmet is gone.
He doesn’t answer, only takes the pie from the back of the bike and walks to the barricaded edge of the green, climbing over the safety it provides to begin a descent that makes her choke. She scrambles up to the fence, her fingers clutching at its metallic promise, and then relaxes when she sees the wide shelf of grass just below.
“I’ve heard about going over the wall, but this is ridiculous,” she jokes.
“I often come up here just to think,” he says, settling himself with his back against the face the mountain and his legs bent in front of him. His eyes are locked on the cloudless horizon. “There’s really no equivalent of this in England, you know.”
“What? You don’t have mountains in England?” She is still kidding as she sit down next to him, but the solid feel of his arm against hers, the heat radiating from his body matching that of the sun beaming down on both of them, solemnifies the occasion.
“Not the mountain. The sky.” One hand stretches out to trace the line of blue meeting green in the distance. “Even on a clear day, in England there will always be clouds ringing around you, no matter which direction you look. Overhead will be blue, while in front of you…cloudy.” The corner of his mouth lifts. “It’s rather liberating not being bound by those same restrictions any longer.”
She’s not sure he’s talking about the clouds any more, but holds her tongue, picking at the pie that he hands to her. As she places a delicate flake of crust in her mouth, he begins to speak again, but this time, he isn’t talking about the weather, and he isn’t talking about England.
He is talking about Sunnydale.
And every word that falls from his tongue is soaked in regret.
He never looks at her. The entire time he speaks, his gaze remains riveted to the distance in front of them. He tells of how proud he’d been at being selected among so many candidates to take over for Giles, how diligently he’d prepared, and how staunchly he’d vowed not to fail them.
And then landing in California, a world he’d only seen on television or celluloid, and how jubilant its beauty had made him feel, how confident he’d been that he would be successful. Doing his part to protect their American Dream by shaping and molding the Slayer. Except…she’d refused to listen, they had all refused to hear that, yes, he actually knew what he was talking about, and it had only served to drive him harder, to fight to make them understand. To make them see he could be just as valuable as they perceived Giles to be.
That he was good enough.
But he never was.
And he had failed again. Been weak and ineffective.
“Which is why I’d rather you not say anything to anyone about seeing me,” he finishes. Only now does he look at her, and she wonders why she’s surprised that his eyes are so clear. It’s the gaze of a man who is comfortable with his decisions. “I haven’t earned that right yet.”
“Are we really that bad?” Willow says. “Do you really think we’d be that shallow?”
“I did,” he confesses. “But you have been…surprising.”
“Surprising good, or surprising bad?”
She wonders if he’s going to even going to answer her. He just sits there, looking at her as if she’s the only real thing in the world, and she is beginning to feel just a little awkward.
“Surprising very, very good,” Wesley finally murmurs.
She rushes to reiterate what she said at the diner. He needs to hear it again, she knows this more than anything now. “And last night, what you did with that vamp, and then afterward…” Her voice is shaking before she can finish, and she doesn’t know why. Because it wasn’t anything she hadn’t been thinking about all day; it was just her saying it out loud this time. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Should it? “Everything about you has been surprising to me, too,” she finishes.
When he tosses her earlier question back at her, Willow doesn’t take nearly as long to answer as he did.
“Surprising very, very good.”
It’s not as if he isn’t hungry, but watching Willow eat is somehow infinitely more fulfilling than doing it himself. Never before has he wished so fervently to be an inanimate object, his gaze riveted by the path of her fork as it travels from her plate to her mouth, and then tarrying on her lips as they wrap around the silver tines, sliding down their length while she takes the bite of pastry onto her tongue. He’s embarrassed at his own obsessive staring, but he can’t stop, not even when he tries to shatter the mood by joking about the last time she’s eaten. The extra-vigorous bite she responds with only serves to make him hard, and it takes all his concentration to shift his weight in the booth so that sitting isn’t quite so uncomfortable.
Pillock. She’s just a…
But he can’t finish the sentence, because the instinct is to add child and that would be wrong and not only inaccurate but horribly unfair. It wasn’t a child who had uttered the counterspell under the dock, and it wasn’t a child who had stepped from his bathroom wearing only his shirt. Child-like, maybe, but that is as far as he is willing to go. Willow is very much a woman, a young one granted, but there is no denying that the past year has seen her grow up far more than he could ever imagine.
Was it his fault that he was responding to her in such a manner?
No fault. But perhaps not entirely appropriate.
So he only half-hears her stories, fantasies about commandos sneaking around Sunnydale and the return of William the Bloody---oh, I must remember to ask her more in detail later, this would be fascinating to discover more about---and her tales of university. Nothing of any substance, which is just as well because if she is to question him on it later, he will be hard-pressed to intelligently answer her. His primary focus is on regaining control of the body that seems determined to betray him.
Just as he finishes his meal, she mentions Cordelia, a name he hasn’t considered in quite some time, and a bemused smile curves his lips. “I’d thought she’d said she wanted to be an actress,” he says out loud.
Her automatic explanation is followed even more rapidly by the question of how he would know such a thing, an intimate detail of the prom queen’s life that shouldn’t have been known by “Watcher Wesley.”
Perhaps it’s the appellation she assigns him that strikes so deeply. It hasn’t occurred to him until now that this is how she perceives him, that he hasn’t left behind that image as cleanly as he would like, and the desire to prove otherwise to her is suffocating. “I’m no longer a Watcher, remember,” he prompts, and turns to get the waitress’ attention. Dessert would be nice.
“Do you wish you could go back?”
It isn’t the question he expects her to ask. Surely, she’d rather pry into his ill-fated relationship with Miss Chase, but no, what seems to be holding her attention is his unfortunate association. So he tells her the truth, curbing his choice of words slightly even as the memory of his father’s voice on the phone---really, Wesley, your deportment is disappointing to say the least---and finishes, “I wouldn’t dream of asking to be reinstated at this point.” Because he wouldn’t. He doesn’t deserve it.
“You’re too hard on yourself,” she is saying. And then she is praising him, praising his skills that morning, and Wes can feel his insides beginning to warm again---maybe I was wrong---only to chill when she mentions the Slayer’s name.
“And here I’d hoped to impress you.” Hoped? Ha. More like prayed and where in the world did that ever come from?
“But you did that. I thought I made that clear. You were amazing this morning, Wesley.”
Amazing. She’d called him amazing. He doesn’t want to believe it---well, he does, he just doesn’t believe he should---and yet there is no denying the truth of her words. Not even the sudden presence of the waitress can distract him from mulling over her words, so when she asks for pie, he wonders if she’s reading his mind because dessert was exactly why he’d called her over in the first place.
He can’t resist reaching out and setting his hand over hers, hovering and only exerting the slightest of pressures. “It’s too gorgeous of a day to be wasting it inside,” he says.
She shakes her head as if she’s waking herself from a stupor. “Huh?”
So he repeats his statement, adding, “I’d like to take you for a ride, if you don’t mind.” Oh, dear Lord, did I just say that out loud? Clarify, clarify. “On the motorcycle.” She must think I’m a complete idiot. “It would be a nice distraction, don’t you think?”
Her yes and her smile are all it takes to melt any further fears. Before he can lose his renewed resolve, he’s paying for the check---probably too much but who cares, it’s only money, not important at all when compared to other things---and waiting for her to follow him out to the bike. He won’t tell her where they’re going; he’ll just take her and surprise her, as it surprises him each and every time, and hope that she’ll understand. She has to. That’s what Willow does.
Their speed on the road mirrors the ricocheting of his nerves along his skin. All he wants is to get there quickly, even though it will mean losing the tenor of her arms around his waist, the sound of those little squeaks she makes when he takes a curve a little too sharply. Then there it is, beckoning to him with the comforting call of an old friend, and he stops the bike, disembarking and taking off his helmet even as he says, “We’re here?”
“And where’s here?”
There is no way words can describe it, so he leaves it to the view to speak for him. Taking their dessert from the rear of the motorcycle, he walks over to the fence and carefully climbs over, dropping to the shelf below with a practiced ease. When she lowers herself to join him, joking along the way, he waits until he feels the calming effect of her arm against his before continuing.
“I often come up here just to think,” he confesses. Not that he needs to tell her how often that happens, but its siren call is too alluring to resist.
So is the need to explain it all to her.
And he does. He talks of Sunnydale, and England, and Buffy, and Faith, and it all comes out with an effortlessness that surprises him, the words flowing faster and faster until he feels breathless from it all.
And not once does she laugh. And not once does she judge. She just sits there, and listens, and eats the pie in small delicate nibbles while the crumbs fall to her lap, watching him though he’s looking ahead, focusing on the perfection of the view to keep him guided. Not even when he admits to his own inadequacy, finishing with the repeat of his rather plaintive request not to be a bedtime sorority story when she returns to the Hellmouth, does she rebuke his weakness.
“Are we really that bad?” she asks instead. Why does it look like she’s going to cry? I didn’t tell her this to make her cry. “Do you really think we’d be that shallow?”
He has no choice but to own up to that very thought. “But you have been…” Can I really do this? “…surprising.”
“Surprising good, or surprising bad?”
How could it be surprising bad? he wants to ask her. Can you not see yourself? Can you not see how amazing should be the word for you and not me?
So he affirms his declaration, warming further when she gushes yet again about his prowess that morning. Then her voice is shaking, and her cheeks are pink, and she is stammering over her words in such a way that he can’t help but question what could be affecting her so---surely it isn’t me, I haven’t done anything---and he can’t help returning her query.
“Surprising good, or surprising bad?”
She is much faster to respond. “Surprising very, very good.”
And he’s likely to regret it as soon as it happens---because that’s the way of the world for him, isn’t it?---but Wesley can no longer deny the urges spurring his body, feeling his head lower, his eyes locked by her mouth, closer and closer until he can smell the sugar on her breath, feel it fan against his lips.
The kiss is almost chaste, and she tastes so pure that it makes him ache, but their heads turn as if they’d planned it, tilting to allow the kiss to glide fluidly, no more awkwardness than if he’d actually asked her for the privilege. This is Willow, his mind is yelling at him, you really should stop, even as his heart is whispering, this is Willow, don’t you dare even think of stopping.
For the first time in forever, he ignores the arguments of his head.