Setting: About mid to late Season 7. When isn't particularly important, let's say about "First Date"-ish. The only real spoiler is references to the Willowcentric event(s) at the end of S6. This is set fairly solidly in continuity.
Notes: This story came about because I woke up this morning with about a third of it in my head. The original plan was for it to be more Tara-oriented from a Willow perspective, but at some point between my head and my fingers, it became about Willow and Buffy. I'm okay with that.
(8 November 2003)
The party had been Dawn's idea.
Things had been entirely too serious around the Summers home lately for Dawn's tastes, and she came to the conclusion that a party was the only possible solution. Parties made everything better! You know, apart from that one time when the zombies attacked and killed a not insignificant portion of the student body, or when everyone was trapped in the house for a few days, or—
Flukes. Coincidences. Coincidental flukes. Besides, Dawn had refused to use the "begins with 'w", rhymes with 'fish'" word ever since, so no more of those wacky hijinks. And they so desperately needed something uplifting. Morale was … well, it could be better. The First had everybody terrified. Even Buffy (which scared Dawn more than anything The First had done so far). Xander's jokes were forced, Anya only took moderate enjoyment out of fondling her money, and Willow … She was a shadow of her former self. Dawn couldn't remember the last time she'd heard Willow laugh, or seen that warm glow in her eyes that had been such a comfort to Dawn in the tough times after she lost her mom and Buffy.
The party was for all of them, even those grating Potentials, but it was Willow's birthday, and Dawn wanted it to be as special and fun and horror-free as absolutely possible.
The thought was nice, Willow told herself for the 657th time that night. They're trying to make you feel better. The thought was nice.
Willow felt like her face was going fall off from the forced smile she'd been wearing since arriving home and getting the poop scared out of her by a dozen people yelling "Surprise!" At first, she'd been utterly confused. She had completely forgotten that it was her birthday; such a trivial event in light of what they were up against. Who has time to celebrate birth when death is looming in front of you, all confident and evil? For a moment, just a brief one, she'd been tempted to yell at them, to chastise and berate. How could they even think about partying at a time like this? Didn't they realize just how big and bad this Big Bad was? They needed answers, they needed information, and they needed Willow to get it, but she was utterly lost, zero answers, but hey, who cares if the world's original evil had targeted each and every one of them for mean, nasty, gut-wrenchingly, heart-breakingly horrific death? Let's party!
She opened her mouth to say all of this (probably sprinkled heavily with some fairly naughty words and phrases), but then Dawn bounded over, squealing with delight and looking at Willow with such affection that the witch knew she could say nothing of the sort. The party wasn't really for her. It was for them. And for them, she could put on her happy face. After all, Willow said to herself, the thought was nice.
The present opening had been the worst. Everyone's eyes fixated on her, watching expectantly for her delight and approval. The problem was that it had been so long since Willow felt delighted, she wasn't sure she could pull it off convincingly, and she was so very tired. Who knew that just smiling took so much energy?
And to be completely honest, the gifts were thoroughly depressing.
It was clear to Willow that her friends, her most dear and treasured people, had absolutely no idea what to get her. Previous years had been easier: a few spell ingredients here, a crystal or two there … But now, with that crutch gone, her friends had been left with … What? Just her. Willow. Broken and barely hanging on, but still Willow.
Willow looked at the bath salts and fought back a surprisingly intense wave of sadness and tears. Bath salts, the gifting kiss of death. Nothing says "I don't know you well enough to buy you a real present" like obscure toiletries. And it was from Buffy. Buffy. God, that was a pain that just didn't stop. Willow had felt her mask slipping the instant she tore off the paper to see the bottle beneath. Oh, how she hated those little pink crystals, all scented and loathsome. Hated them with a fiery passion that threatened to consume her, body and soul, to burn and burn until—
Jerking her head up, Willow met Buffy's eyes, soft and questioning, and realized that she'd been asked a question. "Oh! Uhh … Yes! Yes, I-I like them! Pretty! And so smelly, in that generally pleasant bath salty way."
Buffy visibly relaxed. "Oh, good. It's just … Are you sure it's okay? Cuz if not, you know, we can hit the mall tomorrow and—"
Willow slammed the mask back on at full force and beamed at Buffy with what she hoped was enchanted glee rather than the devastating sorrow she felt. "Absolutely not. The thought was nice. And it's perfect, really. Sure to be so relaxing! Look, it even says so on the label. Mm, I can feel the relaxing beginning already. Yup, so relaxed." She looked at the jar in her hand and resisted the urge to scream and throw it against the wall, settling instead for putting it on the table with the rest of her gifts.
To be fair, the others hadn't done so badly. Dawn had bought Willow a nice webcam for her laptop. (Dawn had actually bought the gift this time, too; she had offered the receipt as proof.) Willow strongly suspected that the present was more for Dawn, who had apparently claimed joint custody over the PowerBook, but Willow was okay with that. She had been known to, in her time, make a couple of present purchases of, say, clothes and CDs that just happened to be exactly her style, and was only too happy to take them off of her mother's hands after the required politeness waiting period. Besides, the gadget could come in handy, if Willow ever managed to convince the Coven to network.
Xander and Anya had bought her a set of hardback Dr. Seuss books, which Willow had loved. She could definitely do with some Horton-y goodness in her life right about now. Anya had, of course, read them all before reluctantly handing them over, but was pleased to announce to Willow that she finally understood some of her obscure literary references and that many of them were indeed humorous. Xander had given her a big hug (thus far, her favourite present) and wistfully told her how she was all growed up now. Then he offered to tuck her in tonight at bedtime and read her Hop on Pop.
Kennedy had chimed in on this, saying that he'd better not interfere with her own special birthday plans for Willow. Xander responded with a vaguely off-colour interpretation of Hop on Pop, but Willow wasn't really listening. She was back to the bath salts.
Had things really degraded so badly between them? When she had first returned to Sunnydale, Willow had been terrified of Buffy's reaction. To say that they parted on bad terms would be something of an understatement. Willow had been undeniably scared about seeing everyone again -– what do you say to your loved ones after going all veiny and homicidal on them? Oops? But she knew, way deep down in her toes somewhere, that with time, they would all be okay again. Except maybe for Buffy.
Buffy was the wild card. They had drifted apart so much over that year, each so deeply embroiled in their own personal dramas that everything else had seemed so insignificant. Buffy was Willow's best friend and she loved her deeply; a good Buffy cry 'n hug extravaganza was so totally what Willow needed right now. They could watch "Beaches" together over bags and bags of M&Ms and get all weepy over lifelong friendships and terminal diseases. And then Willow would make fun of Buffy for the whole "Wind Beneath Your Wings" thing with Spike and Buffy would throw a handful of candy at Willow and then it would all degenerate into a pillow fight and for a few minutes they could just laugh and cry and hug and be two best friends.
But bath salts. God damn bath salts.
And you know what? The thought wasn't nice. There was nothing nice at all about this situation. Buffy was shutting herself off from everybody. Again. Willow could feel Buffy slipping away, and what made it even worse was that Willow was slipping too. None of them understood what she was going through, how hard it was just to get out of bed every day. How unfathomably empty and terrible her life was. She had all this power locked up inside her and every second of every day she battled with herself to keep it under control. Sometimes she could feel it, like a living thing, crawling and slithering beneath her skin. Willow had never told her friends this, but when Giles first took her to England, she had become convinced that there was something crawling in her skin … and she'd tried to cut it out. Those were dark days, her darkest ever, and she wanted so badly to talk to Buffy about it.
But if Buffy looked at her with the same disappointment and disgust that Willow felt for herself, she was sure her heart would break. And there wasn't a whole heck of a lot of heart left to break.
Like a fist, Willow was hit with a longing for Tara, so intense that she couldn't breathe. To see her again, to touch her. To stroke her hair and look into those clear, blue eyes. To breathe her in, an intoxicating perfume of apples, rain, sex and magic. To hear that soft voice, to see that quirky smile …
Willow stood up abruptly from the couch. Out. She had to get out. Everyone's attention was thankfully diverted, watching in equal parts amusement and horror as Xander and Dawn demonstrated their ability to tango and Andrew tried to breakdance. Willow ducked into the kitchen and slipped out the back door, closing it quietly behind her, just in time for the tears to start falling.
The loss of Tara was still something Willow hadn't yet completely come to terms with. She had started to let go and heal, thanks in part to Kennedy's relentless pursuit, but some days … Some nights … She would just lie awake in bed, listening to Kennedy breathing deeply, unconcerned despite the immense danger that threatened them all. Those nights, sleep was all but impossible. Every time she closed her eyes, she would see and hear too much. Gunshots. A window breaking. Red on blue. "Your shirt…" The sound of her own choked sobs, her desperate pleas for Tara to wake up.
No, no sleep for Willow those nights.
Slumping down on the back steps, the tears flowing freely now, Willow looked up to the sky, searching for The Big Pineapple but finding only clouds. An anguished moan escaped her lips. She felt so alone, and so cold …
"You should've brought your coat, you big doofus," a voice behind Willow said, draping a blanket over the redhead's shivering frame and taking a seat next to her.
"Buffy!" Willow exclaimed, quickly wiping her eyes and scooching over so Buffy had plenty of room. "Yeah. Coat. Thanks. I sorta forgot about it in the heat of the … crippling grief."
"Crappy birthday, huh?" Buffy nodded in sympathy. "I am SO there with you. I haven't had a decent birthday since NEVER."
Willow chuckled. No, Buffy and birthdays never seemed to get along very well. Still, though, you'd think … "Never? Not even pre-birthright-destiny-Slayerificness?"
"Nah," replied Buffy, wrapping her arms around herself, partially for warmth, partially for comfort. "I mean, I'm guessing that before words could be formed, they were pretty cool. I mean, a day all about me filled with sparkly things and attention. That can't be bad." Buffy frowned slightly, thinking of all the birthdays past. "But as far back as I can remember, something was always off. Either Dawn threw a temper tantrum, or the night ended in Mom and Dad screaming at each other, or just … sucky presents."
Willow gave a low, derisive snort. "Yeah."
If Buffy caught the tone in Willow's voice, she ignored it. "I'm really sorry about the party thing. I told Dawn that we shouldn't do it, but—"
"No, no!" Willow interrupted. "I-It was sweet! The thought was nice, really. It's just … " Willow trailed off, again searching the sky for Tara's constellations but finding only darkness. No light. She took a deep breath and hugged herself. "It's just this is the first since … you know. Since Tara … "
"Yeah," Buffy said. "I know."
The two sat in silence, unsure of what, if anything, should be said. Before it could become overly uncomfortable, Willow gave a short laugh, laced with bitterness.
"It's kinda funny, y'know? I was just thinking -- I'm 21. Now I'm an adult. I've seen things so terrible they defy description. I've helped save the world more times than I can count. I've killed and resurrected. I've buried the person I was supposed to grow old with. And now -- only now -- can I order a beer."
"And you don't even like beer."
"The world is full of injustice."
Buffy closed the gap between her and Willow, grabbing the corner of the blanket and throwing it over herself as well. She wrapped her arm around Willow's shoulders and hugged her friend, the gesture both natural and so welcome. They remained that way for several moments as Willow squeezed Buffy's hand in gratitude.
"So," Buffy began, finally breaking the hug and the silence, "when are you going to yell at me for the bath salts thing?"
Willow jumped, surprised at the unexpected conversational turn. "W-What? No, I … They're … They're great! So … pink, a-and fragrant!"
"C'mon, Will. They SUCK."
"W-Well, they're not exactly what I would have personally chosen perhaps, but the thought—"
"They SUCK," reiterated Buffy. "And they're not your real present." Willow looked at Buffy, clearly confused. "Your real present isn't ready yet. A couple of weeks ago, when we needed more space for the Potentials, I was going through some of … Mom's old stuff. And I found an undeveloped roll of film."
Willow nodded and swallowed hard, desperate to hear what Buffy had to say, but strangely nervous.
"I-I wasn't going to touch it at first. You know -- raw pain, old wounds. Fun stuff. But I couldn't not know, you know?"
She paused, looking into the distance before continuing. "They were pictures from Christmas, a couple of years ago. All of us, at my house. You remember?"
Willow nodded again. "Too much 'nog."
"That's the one," Buffy said. "That's … Those are some of my favourite memories. Ever. All of us, together. Just one big family enjoying quality family time during a good ol' traditional family holiday. There were no monsters, no danger. Just peace, and warmth, and love."
"And 'nog o' plenty." Buffy rubbed her eyes and allowed herself a moment to retreat back there. Her mother wasn't sick, Dawn was secure in her place in the world, everyone was alive … She sighed, and returned her attention to Willow. "I don't really remember Mom circulating with the camera, but she obviously did. Lots of the pictures are nice, but there's this one in particular … It's of all of us. You and me, Giles, Xander and Anya, Dawn … and Tara. We're all laughing, I don't remember at what, and we all just look so … " Buffy searched for the right word.
"Happy," Willow whispered.
"Yeah. Happy. Happy, and safe. And looking at that picture, it feels like a whole other world. The way the world used to be. How it should be." Buffy sighed deeply, pulling herself out of the dream and back to the harsh, cold, practical life of the Slayer. "It's not. It probably won't ever be again, not for any of us. But with that picture, we can at least remember why we keep trying. And that's my gift to you -- my real gift. I've had the picture blown up and it's at the frame shop now. Should be ready in a day or two."
The tightness in Willow's throat made it hard to speak. This is what she needed so desperately. A center, a connection. "Buffy … "
"I mean honestly, bath salts?" the Slayer continued. "Please. Surely you know me better than that. When I found out the framing job was delayed, I didn't want to show up empty-handed, but I had all the fun that is Potential Training on my calendar and didn't really have time to hit the mall. So I gave Spike some money and asked him to pick you up a little something."
"And he settled on that?"
"Well I guess that's what you get for asking a recently reformed evil to do your shopping for you. Or a guy. The two are interchangeable sometimes."
Buffy pulled Willow close for another hug, a real one this time, neither one of them bothering to hide the sniffles. Maybe, just maybe, we'll make it through this okay after all, Willow mused, feeling more calm and content at that moment than she had in months.
She looked up at the sky again, and was pleased to see that the cloud cover had broken. The stars were out in full force, twinkling down merrily on the young witch. She found what she was looking for instantly, and smiled. "There you are," she said quietly.
"There who is?" Buffy asked, following Willow's gaze.
"My Pineapple," she repeated, offering no other explanation but smiling happily at the sky.
Yeah. I think everything's going to be okay, Willow thought.
The thought was nice.