On some level, Buffy had long ago accepted that things changed, and there was no such thing as "going back to the way things were before." Which didn't mean that she had ever gotten used to it.
Willow had changed. It wasn't anything obvious, not like the black hair that had faded back into natural red, or the eerie tone of voice that had fled in the face of Willow's lilting, now mostly whispered sounds. It was the fact that, when she spoke, it was out of necessity. When she smiled, it was because it was expected. Willow seemed to have honed everything about herself to the bare minimum of what others needed from her.
Buffy needed more.
When Xander had tried to explain things to her, Buffy had translated his own words back to him, "We weren't enough for her."
"Are we gonna pretend this is about us, rather than Willow?" Xander had run a hand through his hair and looked apologetic, but not enough to actually say, 'I'm sorry.'
Buffy had had the sense not to expect it, or even feel that she deserved it. "There are things I'm good at. I can stop a plot for world destruction with the best of 'em. But I'm beginning to suspect that I make suck at being a best friend."
"I don’t think I'm really the person you should be seeking advice from in that particular area, all things considered."
"You stopped her. You got her to see…how much she meant to you, to us-"
"How much I loved her, Buff. Love."
Buffy closed her eyes against the headache which that word always caused to swirl up through the base of her skull. "I was trying. I don't always. I'm not good with knowing what to do when it comes to her."
"With Will, it's never been about the big things. Mostly, she just wants someone to pay attention. Someone to share their secrets with her. She's not hard to love."
Buffy didn't know how to tell Xander that sometimes it was the easiest things in life that were completely impossible for her.
"I'm not going to break," Willow declared, before tilting her head slightly to the side. "I already did that. This is the putting-back-together-again part."
Buffy remembered the words to that nursery rhyme. She caught herself before saying them out loud. "I don't think you are."
Willow smashed her lips together. "Something's got you all-" Her hands flew around in a patternless expression of how she saw Buffy acting toward her.
"I'm just worried. That's all. I mean, there was…I'm just worried." Buffy nearly winced at her lame verbal attempts at helpful dishonesty. "I mean, you're my best friend, I'm supposed to worry."
"You're also supposed to trust me." Willow said the words softly, but her tone conveyed stress.
"Takes two." The words came out before Buffy was even sure what they meant.
Willow seemed to know, though. "Yeah, it's a pretty vicious cycle."
Buffy was too scared to ask her what that meant.
The world always seemed to be just fine on its own when Buffy most needed a cataclysmic event to pop up out of nowhere. As hard as she tried, the vamps were easy to kill, Dawn's friends all seemed human -- if somewhat flaky -- and Spike wasn't around for her to divert her low-level chronic panic attack onto.
It wasn't exactly that she didn't have things to worry about. She was running behind on the water bill and Dawn had the worst taste in boys and Xander and Anya were still acting weird every time they got within ten feet of each other. Unfortunately, none of those things seemed to worry her anywhere near as much as how Willow was doing, how her and Willow were doing -- pretty much everything surrounding Willow.
So it was that when Willow dropped the hint, "Dawny's spending the night at Jane's on Thursday, because I maybe prodded her a little bit, with you having the night off and all," Buffy came back with a less-than-adequate, "That's…good."
Willow must have sensed that she was going to have to do all the work, because she went straight ahead without even sighing, "I could make dinner, have it ready when you get home."
If there was one thing Buffy had spent a life time perfecting, it was the art of acting calm. "Oh, real food. I'd forgotten there was such a thing."
Willow's smile wasn't full, but it was genuine. "I can imagine. Look, we'll lock the door, right? You can spend some time patrolling after dinner and then after that, girl's night in, with movies and chocolate dipped popcorn."
Panic aside, Buffy wasn't lying when she admitted, "Will, you had me at 'lock the door.'"
Buffy let herself in the back door after work and grinned at Willow's back. "You can't have the slightest idea what it's like to walk out of somewhere smelling like that and come home to a place smelling like this."
Willow turned around. "I made chicken and rice, no onions, just the way you like."
"Ah, a classic."
"You wanna shower before dinner or after the dusting spree?"
Buffy walked over to the sink and began washing her hands with the dish soap. She repeated the process twice. "Post-slayage, I think. Doesn't make much sense the other way."
Willow had set two plates on the counter with silverware and glasses. There was a plastic Hello Kitty cup that Buffy remembered just absolutely needing to have when she was in third grade squarely between the two place settings, nearly a dozen dandelions poking out of it. Buffy dried her hands on a kitchen towel and went about putting ice in the glasses. "You weed the garden today?"
Willow was doling out minced garlic sparingly over the green beans steaming on the stove. "Yeah, how'd you-" The dandelions caught the corner of her eye as she turned to look at Buffy and Willow rotated herself back toward the stove, "Oh. They were too pretty to throw into the mulch with the rest of the stuff."
"We have mulch?"
"I've been reading that AA guideline book that Xander procured, it says that projects are a good thing, y'know, to keep an ex-addict non-addicty."
"How bad was the garden?"
"I've seen worse." Willow paused. "In sparsely populated areas near wild wood-growth."
Buffy could hear Willow's smile. It made her laugh softly. "Where have my priorities been?"
Willow put the top back over the beans.
Buffy liked to run the water twice as hot as she normally would after coming home from patrolling. It seemed like the only way to do things. The steam tended to get so thick that she coughed on it while breathing in.
She reached blindly for her body wash, her eyes flying open at the weight of the bottle, which was far heavier than it should have been. As of that morning, it had been nearly empty. She opened the lid and sniffed at the soap. It was the same scent. Seeing as how her only option other than using the mysterious soap was to go without washing her body, Buffy poured a dollop into her palm and set the bottle down.
She came downstairs afterward, barefoot and smelling of melon and aloe .
Willow smiled, "I forgot to tell you, I saw the list you were making up for the grocery store and picked up all the stuff while I was getting what I needed for dinner today. I wasn't sure if I got the right soap, but you smell right, so I must've."
"I smell right." Buffy wasn't sure if she was asking a question or confirming a truth.
"Watermelon and something else. Xander always smells like wood, in a good way, though. Dawn changes a lot, but she tends to stay with vanilla-themed scents. Anya smells like designer perfume. I have a good nose."
"What do you smell like?"
"I can't really smell myself." Willow paused. Buffy sensed there was more. She was rewarded for waiting it out when Willow continued. "I use Tara's shampoo. Not her bottle, literally, but when we first got together, one of the first things I fell madly in love with was the scent of her hair, it was…warmed sandalwood, I guess. So I bought myself a bottle. I can't smell it on myself, but I hope it's there."
Cautiously, Buffy came closer to her best friend, reaching out to pluck a length of red hair from its resting place. She put her nose to it.
Buffy knew they were watching "Never Been Kissed" because Willow had a thing for Drew Barrymore and happy endings, even if Willow had the good grace to say, "Molly Shannon, with the funny."
Which was true, all the same.
Willow allowed Buffy to make the popcorn, rescuing it from the microwave without a word about Buffy's attention span and handing it over to her, "The steam burns are all you, girl."
Willow deftly removed the top half of the double boiler from the stove and drizzled the melted fondue chocolate over the extra-butter variety popcorn. Buffy reached for a piece and Willow admonished, "You gotta let it harden," without ever once looking in Buffy's direction from where she was busy cleaning out the pot.
Later, when Buffy was resting more on top of Willow than the couch and thinking about how she really didn't mind happy endings so much herself, she theorized, "Y'know, I don’t think it's even really about the taste of chocolate and popcorn, because when you consider it from that angle, ew. But it's just…there's the crunchiness and then the weird softness of the popcorn inside. Like, a treat you weren't expecting to find. Only you were. Expecting to find it."
Underneath her, Willow drew a breath in. The ridge of her ribcage was hard against Buffy's temple.
Willow had started it. "Coke or Pepsi?"
Buffy hadn't even blinked, "Pepsi."
Willow made a face. "It's a good thing I like you so much for your non-taste related attributes."
Buffy spent a minute looking affronted and formulating the question, "Disneyland or Sea World?"
"Hard choice, but I think, in the end, the dolphins win out over Dopey." Willow made it apparent that this choice pained her. "Wilco or Ryan Adams?"
"Wil…co. Wilco." Buffy's answer was more confident the second time. "Britney or Pink?"
Willow glared. "I don't exploit your secret weaknesses."
Buffy was nonplussed. "Catholic school girl gone wrong, or misunderstood homegirl?"
"Neither, Britney." In retribution Willow asked, "Lisa Frank or Sanrio?"
"At this point in my life, I'd have to say Sanrio." Buffy forced the words out and returned to something safe, "Hostess or Little Debbie's?"
"Little Debbie's. Here or somewhere else?"
Buffy didn't even have time to realize what she was responding to when the word, "Here" was out of her mouth. Willow looked pleased. Buffy just continued, "Harry or Draco?"
Buffy and Willow both woke up to a rather loud, mildly panicky, "Willow! Willow! Buffy's not here, she's-"
Dawn broke off and blinked, only half her body inhabiting Willow's room. "Oh, there she is."
"Slumber party of two, Dawny." Buffy patted the side of the bed next to her.
Dawn sat down. "Sorry, you weren't in you bed. I might've overreacted."
Willow, whose heart was still racing, smiled. "You've earned the right."
"So, um," Dawn was bouncing, the bed moving underneath her, "you guys want me to make you breakfast? I can pour a really great cereal."
Buffy closed her eyes. "How 'bout you give us an hour and I'll squeeze an orange to compliment your gourmet concoction?"
"An hour it is." Dawn politely closed the door behind her as she left.
Buffy rolled into Willow. Her body was tight, reflexes still poised to go rescue Dawn. Willow threw her arm over Buffy, letting the palm rest in between Buffy's shoulder blades. "Relax. Everyone's safe."
Buffy laid her hand gently over Willow's neck, just to be sure.
Double Meat Palace, as it turned out, had some sense of occasion and therefore was not open the night of July fourth. Before anyone knew what had happened, Willow had Dawn, Buffy and herself packed into a car and driving out to the beach to do some over-the-water fireworks viewing.
Dawn had her shoes off before she even left the car, hitting the sand at a dead run in the direction of the receding water. Buffy laughed and helped Willow unpack the car. "When she acts like things are new, sometimes I remember that they are. Even if she doesn't really know they're new. I mean, she thinks she's seen the ocean a million times before, but really, I'm pretty sure we've only brought her out here once or twice."
Willow started to walk, picnic basket dangling from one hand, fold out chair from another. "She reminds me of you."
Buffy set down one folding chair and turned the other one over, wondering if perhaps the mystery of how to unfold it would appear on the bottom. "I was like that?"
"You used to notice our victories."
Buffy triumphed over the chair and sat down in it, mentally sighing in relief when it didn't dump her into the sand. "Will, I still-"
"No you don't. You look into me now, not at me, if you even look at all, for fear of what you might see."
"Maybe I'm checking to see that you're alright."
"Maybe that's the problem. You wouldn't know alright now if it bit you on the ass in an invitation to foreplay. You check to see that things are okay by checking to see if they're actually not."
"If you're trying to say that I'm not an optimist, I already got the memo."
"I'm trying to tell you that I'm here and alive and maybe a little bit sad, but that's human, and we're all allowed to be human from time to time. But we won, you won, Xander won, even I won, and you need to accept that, and be happy with it, and not be looking for the other shoe to drop. If it does, you'll know it, you always do. The world, after all, is still standing, and you need to fucking smile about that."
Buffy slid off the chair onto the picnicking blanket. "You're still here."
"Yeah. We won."
Buffy's smile was small, like that of a newborn child still learning to use her facial muscles, but it played across her whole face.
Late August came with temperatures that made moving a finger a task of extreme diligence. Willow made many pitchers worth of sun tea and bought custom popscicle molds.
"I've been thinking about things," Willow said, the ice on her tongue making her words less than crystal clear, "that maybe you should be thinking about too. Or at least, knowing about."
Buffy nodded, and continued to work on the art of not worrying every time Willow needed to discuss something. She was making slow progress.
"Somehow, nobody knows why or how, least of all me, I've been offered a T.A. job, on the condition that I bring my GPA back up to at least a 3.8 in this first semester. But I would start at the beginning of the semester, and stay on something of a trial run until the end of it. I think the professor might have a thing for lost souls."
"Do you…is this a good thing for you?"
"Oh yeah, I really like the professor and the subject and think I would enjoy the duties. Plus, it would bring in some extra money."
Buffy smiled, if a little tightly. "But?"
"I'm not gonna be around as much. Between that and full time school, I probably won’t get home until ten on the weekdays."
"Have you talked to Dawn about this?"
"And I'm proud of you for letting go a little bit. She will be fine, which I know you know, even if you're freaking out about leaving her alone."
"She's almost sixteen, I gotta let life happen at some point, even if I absolutely hate the idea."
"Which is an excellent segue way into my second point."
"I think we should teach Dawn how to drive."
"If she doesn't learn it from us, she's gonna learn it from someone."
"I repeat my earlier sentiment."
"You trust her enough to teach her slaying technique, but not to get behind the wheel of a car?"
"I'm a better Slayer than Driver. In fact, sometimes the two are equivalent in my case, which is not a good thing."
"Do you want me to do it?"
"You're always better at things with her than you are on your own."
Buffy placed her glass, condensation running down its side, to her forehead. "I'm better when you're around to notice."
"I wanted to use magic today," Willow admitted, her hand shaking slightly as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Nothing flashy. Maybe light up my total dungeon of a classroom. Or transform the cafeteria food into something edible."
Buffy hugged Willow, dancing to the sound of ER's credits coming from the other room where Dawn was watching. "I bet we can find an extra lamp around here for your classroom."
The next day, Buffy loaded the lamp into the back of Willow's car and realized that she hadn't once considered the idea that Willow might have actually given into the temptation the day before.
The day Dawn turned sixteen, Buffy climbed into the passenger seat of the car and let Dawn take them anywhere she wanted to go. Dawn drove to the playground near the cemetery and parked on the street, parallel parking with a level of skill that concerned Buffy, "Where'd you learn to do that?"
"Xander. He said it was a good thing to know."
Dawn meandered to the swings and seated herself in one, smiling sweetly up at Buffy. Buffy rolled her eyes and went behind her sister, giving her a push. As with most things in life, she paid careful attention as to just how much strength she put behind the push.
"Happy birthday, Dawny."
"Thanks for taking me to get my license."
"You were great. I was all, 'look, my sister kicks more ass than your kid!'"
"I'm pretty sure I didn't actually say that to anyone."
"Maybe you should say what you're thinking more often."
Buffy missed a round of pushing. "What do you mean?"
"Look, I know I wasn't actually there when all this happened, but I remember it like I was, so I know how you act when you care about someone as more than a friend and I think it's time that you made Willow understand that she's not pining without hope."
"Willow." Buffy blinked. "Willow isn't pining."
Dawn dragged her feet in the dirt until she stopped and could effectively roll her eyes at her sister.
"She still misses Tara."
"You won't get an argument from me there."
"So she can't-"
"You still miss Angel."
"Distantly." Buffy's voice was petulant, but it was evident that she was pondering.
"Buff. You're my sister, and I love you, I will no matter what, but honestly, for once in your life, just let things be easy. They don't always have to be complicated and screwed up and wrong." Dawn swayed from side to side.
Buffy sat down in the swing next to her and bumped into her erratically. "How do you know?"
Dawn frowned. She shook her head slowly. "I just do, I guess."
Dawn drove herself and her friends out to a restaurant on the other side of town to celebrate her birthday, effectively leaving Buffy alone for when Willow got home. Willow came into where Buffy was staring blindly at the TV, "Have a nice day off?"
Buffy smiled up at her. "Dawn and I spent the afternoon together."
"That was the plan, as I recall." Willow walked over to sit next to Buffy on the couch. "Did you give her a curfew?"
"Told her to call if it was gonna be later than midnight."
"So, are you just wigging about the significance of the day in general, or is there something more specific that I should be knowing about here?"
Buffy was silent. With Xander, to this day, she probably would have felt the need to act blithe, but this was Willow, and there wasn't a need to be anything other than herself. It was the lack of a need to act that compelled her to say, "Dawn thinks I'm in love with you."
Willow got up to turn the TV off, even though the remote was sitting directly ahead of her. "Sixteen or no, she's a kid."
"I've heard that sometimes kids can solve puzzles and riddles that adults can't because adults let all the things they know get in the way and complicate it too much to see what's just simply there, on the surface."
Willow turned to face Buffy. "You're my best friend in the entire world, and I love you. But you need to understand something. You have to be sure about this. This can't be some theory you have to test, because I can't be another Riley. I don't have the leftover sanity for it."
"No. I know. And see, that's the thing. Is that I do know that. I know so many things about you that I never bothered to want to know about Riley. And I want to know more. Actively want."
"You have to realize that I've been in love with you for…well, I turned down Oxford to stay with you. I can't remember a time when there wasn't some element of something beyond friendship in this whole situation for me."
"I'm sorry it took me so long to notice. Everything, really."
Willow moved gracefully to stand over Buffy. She leaned down and kissed her seductively, pulling away only when Buffy was panting and desperate. "I'm patient." She walked toward the stairs. "With some things."