Chapter Seven--On the Bell Star—Northwest of Bermuda

Willow looked up from her course calculations on the computer when she heard the door open below. Buffy paused in the doorway, her navy blue long sleeved T-shirt damp against her skin, outlining her form perfectly. And it made Willow ache with the need to take Buffy into her arms and show how much she loved her. She couldn't, she wouldn't. Hoping that all the right words would magically come to her, all Willow could do was stare at Buffy as she stood in the doorway. Fresh from the shower, all traces of makeup gone, she looked so incredibly young and innocent.

Willow watched as the Slayer looked everywhere in the small cabin except at her. The prefect blonde brows forming a V as Buffy scowled, then she used the towel wrapped around her neck as a distraction. The Slayer brushed passed the redhead in the tiny space of the cabin as she made her way to the stairs. The momentary contact seared the nerve endings along Willow's arms and the blonde was almost up the stairs before Willow could find her voice.

"Buffy," she said quietly, knowing she could hear her. Buffy stopped at the top of the stairs and Willow saw the tension in her shoulders increase as the Slayer turned around, her face the neutral mask Willow remembered from the plane ride.

"Yeah?"

"You can't un-ring the bell," Willow said, quietly.

Buffy turned to go back up on deck.

"But you're right," Willow quickly added. "We have a boat to sail and hunt to get through before," she stopped. Willow was at a lost as to what to say next. Everything was fragile between them; she didn't know what to else to say so she let the silence stretch.

The tension in Buffy shoulders lessened slightly and she slowly pivoted back towards Willow. Light hazel eyes studied the Witch for what seemed like an eternity.

Finally the Slayer answered, "OK".

As if she too understood that there was nothing they could say or do that wouldn't hurt each other, especially not what they both wanted.

Willow took a deep breath, right, then," she swung the chair around. "The first thing we need to do is breakfast?" She heard Buffy come into the cabin and knew that this was the first step for them both. Willow understood Buffy too well, at the moment. If she pushed she would hit the brick wall of Buffy's fear and anger – while if she just went slowly – Buffy would eventually let her defenses fall. And, as she said, Buffy couldn't un-ring the bell, now that Willow was sure of the Slayer's attraction.

**********************

Willow watched the beauty that was Buffy Summers in action. Her hat had fallen off and the sun was highlighting her golden hair as she danced around the boat as if she were born to it. The sight took Willow's breath away, or maybe it was actually the memory of their kiss that morning that stole all the air? She didn't know and she didn't care, she only wanted this moment to last forever. She had everything that she could ever want, the boat, the life of the ocean rising up off the water like a mist, and Buffy Summers safe for the moment.

There was nothing more important in Willow's world than those things.

Nothing.

Willow felt the small boat jump forward when the Slayer opened the spinnaker sail, the wind filling the large canvas triangle as the boat gained speed, the bow slicing through the water. Willow loved it when the boat reached its full potential. It felt like flying.

Normally, she never would have thought about using the spinnaker with only two people on board. Just the weight of the sail made it at least a three-person job. Plus Buffy was on a bluewater boat for the first time – Buffy was different – Buffy was the Slayer. Willow had to explain something to her once and the Slayer was able to do it; there was none of the normal learning curve on the constantly shifting craft.

Willow watched as Buffy carefully disengaged the safety line from the reinforced grab rails so that she could make her way to the bow. The Slayer looked up and flashed Willow a small smile as she reconnected the safety line before securing the Halyard in the mainsail.

Buffy made her way back to the stern following all the safety precautions without complaint. Willow was surprised that the tiny blonde was being so compliant, from wearing the hot plastic life vest, to remembering to reconnect the safety line, she followed all the rules.

The blonde jumped down into the wheel well and disappeared below for a few seconds and then came back on deck with two bottles of water.

"Your computer is going crazy," Buffy commented, as she handed one of the bottles of water to Willow. The Slayer then plopped down on the bench and used the sleeve of her Tee shirt to wipe the sweat from her face. The dark sunglasses hiding her eyes from the red head and the tension from the morning came back in force.

Willow turned away from the sight of Buffy's blue tee shirt soaked with sweat so that clung to her body like a second skin. Only the thin plastic of the deflated life-vest kept Willow's imagination from running wild. She opened the bottle of water and took a huge gulp to cover how dry her throat had suddenly become.

She turned back to the wheel to hide the blush she could feel spreading up her neck to her face. Turning away from Buffy didn't help her run away libido; it had just been too long since she'd actually seen Buffy Summers. Willow's memories did not do the Slayer justice. She checked the gauges for course, speed, wind, trying to ground herself in the simple functions of the boat.

"The computer downloading is actually a relief," Willow said, when she thought she could trust her voice.

"How so?" Buffy's softy spoken question caused Willow to look at her fully. The blonde was standing with her back to her, arms braced on the railing as she looked out at the ocean.

"It means that despite how mad Clare is at me, she's still letting Becky feed us the latest stats on Oya. Not that I really expected her to stop the information, I just wasn't sure." Willow shrugged, even though Buffy couldn't see her.

Buffy pivoted, her eyebrow rose in question, the dark sunglasses hanging by a string around her neck. "Would the lack of updates on the storm really have affected our mission?" The Slayer leaned back against the railing; she appeared relaxed for the first time since the kiss that morning. Or really the first time since Willow picked her up in Cleveland. Simply talking about the mission seemed to be a relief to Buffy.

"Actually, yes, it might have." She smiled.

Out of nowhere Willow felt a burning behind her eyes as tears threatened to fall. She looked away from the blonde and fiddled with the wheel adjustments to buy enough time to regain control. She was not going to blow the sudden easiness between them because she couldn't control herself.

"We can't just go sailing blindly around the Atlantic in the middle of Hurricane season. Especially not with "The Big One" forming in the middle of the Caribbean."

"Oh," Buffy said, crossing her arms as if she were suddenly cold. "So if Clare wanted to end this expedition all she would have to do is stop the information?"

Willow thought about what she said for a moment and realized that Buffy didn't have the same kind of trust in Clare that she did. Why would she? How could she? When the Slayer's entire life was surrounded by darkness. Buffy had to see motivations written within actions because if she didn't then people died.

As Tara died.

As Kennedy died.

As Buffy had died.

An old, familiar anger began to build within Willow's chest blindsiding her. She felt herself slipping away from the conversation, becoming detached as the anger took root. The sounds of the rigging and the smell of the ocean faded until the world was black and white, like the picture tube on an old television set. 'Not now, not now, not now!' Willow chanted internally trying to stop the defense mechanism she'd use for the past nines years to block out of the loneliness. She tried to lift the bottle water to her lips but her hand shook too much. 'I will not let this happen! I will not.' She looked up and could see Buffy's brows drawn down in confusion and, maybe, a little in fear?

Willow had to get it together; she couldn't go back that place where her heart was walled away. She took a deep breath, and then another, struggling to stay in the moment instead of letting what she called her "autopilot" take over.

The Slayer took a tentative step closer to Willow and the redhead saw understanding flash across her face. Buffy touched her the arm that held the bottled water and slowly took it out of her hand. The buzzing that Willow hadn't known she was hearing stopped at the blonde's touch and color started to come back into world.

Willow could breathe again. Buffy patiently held her hand; she didn't speak, she didn't fidget. The Slayer just stood there like a rock with her warm hand covering Willow's cold one offering her whatever strength she needed.

'Just one touch and the world has color,' the witch thought. Then nearly snorted out a laugh at how corny that sounded. Buffy seemed to sense that it was time and she slowly released Willow's hand. Then gave her back the bottle of water.

"So, um," the slayer looked around the boat. And Willow was happy to let her change the topic. "Clare being able to stop our –um—hunt? By cutting off the information?" Or not change the topic; she was going to ignore Willow's little panic attack.

The Witch would happily let Buffy take the lead.

"Yes—no—I don't know," Willow couldn't figure out how to explain the friendship, the trust that Clare had slowly built over the past nine years. The trust that Willow was worried she had thrown away that morning. The redhead watched as Buffy stood calmly next to her waiting for her to figure out what to say. Willow realized that the Slayer was just trying to distract her and the redhead couldn't stop the smile she felt forming.

Buffy's small smile grew, her eyes twinkled, and she turned away. "I get it Willow," the blonde said, " you don't need to explain what you and Clare have, I understand. Besides its the power of The Resolve Face."

The wind shifted and Willow blessed the Goddess.

"Buffy you need to…." the Slayer was already moving to adjust the sails.

"Got it Will," she said as she effortlessly jumped up on top of the cabin. A jump no human could make on a shifting boat. The Slayer paused, just long enough to reattach the safety line, and then she was tightening the portside line to the spinnaker.

***********

"Here Will," Buffy said, as she placed the bottled water and the MRE next to her computer. The Meal-Ready-to-Eat vaguely resembled beef stew though it smelled almost like lasagna. As her computer analyzed the latest date from NOAA and the school Willow watched the blonde move around the cramped cabin. She had the one big plastic bowl that was allowed in the small kitchenette and was pouring three MRE's into it. In Sunnydale Willow had realized early in their friendship with Buffy not to comment on the sheer amount of food she could eat. The scoobs realized the Slayer was self-conscious and sensitive to their words when she started losing weight because she was embarrassed to eat the amount her slayer metabolism required in front of them.

Buffy finished making supper at the same the download completed.

"Anything I need to know?" The Slayer asked, picking up her bowl of brown goo and slipping by Willow to go up on deck.

"Nope, not yet," she answered. The redhead doubled clicked the graph in front of her and started the next phase in turning the raw data into a coherent forecast. Willow watched the mesmerizing sway of Buffy's hips as she walked up the stairs to the deck and she wanted to follow her like the mice followed the piper. She shook her head at the image. 'So maybe it was the rats who followed the piper? It doesn't matter; I can't go up there right now. Not without something specific to talk about.'

So of course at least fifty topics of conversation flashed through Willow's mind.

Willow glanced back and forth between her data and the empty gangway debating. ' On the one hand it would take ten to fifteen minutes for all the programs to run, on the other hand, why risk the new found peace between us by going up on deck right now?'

There would be nothing to do other than eat or talk without a convenient wind shift to rescue them if the conversation turned uncomfortable and that was something that Willow wasn't quite ready to tackle herself. 'Then again I can set the alarm to let me know when the forecast is complete. And I can ask her about why she was so good at following all the safety precautions or what she thought about sailing, those should be safe for conversation.'

"Will your goo is getting cold," Buffy said breaking into the Witch's thoughts and causing her to jump.

"Buffy!" Willow squeaked, then spun around in her chair so quickly she nearly fell out of it, only to find the Slayer standing at the bottom of the gangway stairs.

"That would be me," the blonde said with a slight smile. "I-ah-I thought we could--I need some salt," Buffy motioned with the bowl she held in her hand. She fidgeted her eyes briefly connecting with Willow's before she stared at the wall behind the witch's head.

The stunned silence stretched as Willow sat staring back at Buffy. The blonde had removed the plastic life vest and her Tee shirt hugged the Slayer's body.

"Or maybe not? You must be busy," Buffy said beginning to back up the first step pf the gangway.

"No!" Willow shouted, when she saw the Slayer hesitant retreat. Buffy stopped, a half-smile forming on her lips and her brows rose in question. "I mean, we do have salt and, um, I can get it for you," the Witch swiveled her chair around intending to stand.

"I got it Will," she felt the pressure of a small, warm hand on her shoulder. "You need to eat, remember you didn't have dinner last night nor lunch this afternoon." Willow heard the words as Buffy babbled on slipping between the chair and the bunk, she even had the coherent thought of when did the blonde turn into such a mother hen, however the warmth from her hand spread slowly through her body. A wonderful languor stretched down her spine.

Willow's eyes rose of their own accord to look into the dark green of Buffy's. The slayer stood frozen next to her, and all she would have to do to capture her was to reach out. She lifted her hand when an alarm from the computer sounded in her ear. Buffy pulled her hand way as if burned and took the step to the small kitchen area.

Willow pivoted around in her chair when the computer emitted another beep that signaled an Instant Message from Becky, her T.A. She took a deep breath as Buffy brushed by her again on the way to the deck and out of her sight. And Willow mentally gathered her wits to see what Becky had to say about Oya and if it would influence their course tomorrow.

*******

The Slayer sat staring, unseeing, out over the dark, nighttime, sea, mechanically shoving the brown slop Willow called MREs into her mouth. The stuff was filling even if it was tasteless. Not that it mattered how it tasted, she needed the raw calories for her super charged metabolism, and the slop provide them.

Willow.

She flashed on the redhead smiling at her when she adjusted a sail. The memory of how the redhead looked at that exact moment took the Slayer's breath away and filled her with an aching need to be close to Willow. It didn't matter that they couldn't be together; she just wanted to be close to her. To memorize everything about the redhead for when the hunt was over and she went back to Cleveland.

'Gods why am I so schizophrenic about her! One second it hurts to much to be around her and the next I can't let her out of my sight!'

Buffy disgustedly dropped the fork into the bowl and placed it carefully beside her. She sat forward on the bench, propping her elbows on her knees as she rested her head in her hands. Buffy let the day wash through her mind's eye and images of Willow as it played like a movie before her.

The sun highlighting Willow's hair as she pushed it off her face and her opened mouth astonishment when the Slayer jumped over the wheel well to the roof of the cabin.

Memories.

Soon that would be all she had left--again.

"You forgot your jacket," she lifted her head up and there was Willow. Standing in front of her. Dirty, smelly, exhausted, and with bloodshot eyes, Willow was radiant.

"Buffy?" the red head questioned, waving her hand in front the Slayer's face. "Earth to…" She reached out and grabbed the witch's arm before knew what she was doing. She heard Willow's breath catch in her throat, the noise seemed to fill the Slayer's ears it was so loud. The blonde looked up into darkening green eyes, all the traces of tiredness gone.

So close, so close and Buffy could have the one memory she craved above all else. She wanted to, Gods, how she wanted to just stand up and gather Willow into her arms. She watched as the red head's tongue flittered out to wet her lips and Buffy mimicked the action as the memory of how Willow tasted from their morning kiss flooded her senses.

"Buffy?" the witch whispered, questioning, her need, her want laid bare on her face for the Slayer to see. The smell of Willow's arousal floating in the air between them--mixing with the fresh scent of the sea. Somehow it seemed right that the ocean breeze pushed some of the red hair into the Willow's eyes. The movement drew the Buffy's attention to them and the fact that they were red from crying. The thought of Willow in pain shook Buffy out of her stupor. She dropped Willow's arm and the connection between them seemed to dissolve.

"Will, what's wrong, what happened?" The Slayer reached out to her again, only this time Willow avoided the touch by tightly wrapping her arms around her middle. She pivoted away from Buffy and stared out into the night.

"Please, Will, talk to me?"

The Witch glanced over her shoulder and then shook her head as if she were trying to clear it. "This new 'mother hen Buffy' is taking some getting used too," the redhead said. She could hear the effort it took for Willow to try to make her voice sound light as she fought for control. The Slayer screamed at her to take her into her arms and not give Willow the chance to regain her composure. That if the Witch stayed off balance then she might give up more of her secrets.

Willow twisted, her eyes pleading with Buffy to let it drop. "You obeyed all the safety rules today and made supper for us tonight?" The Witch's voice nearly caught and she turned back to the ocean.

"That's hardly being a 'mother hen,' as you put it." An under current of tension arced between them, a wave of grief swept around Buffy--and she knew--or she didn't know, not exactly. Something Clare said floated up into her mind. 'Whoever did it enjoyed it.' Then the words, 'John's hands were broken.'

On a hunch Buffy asked, "Willow who was on the computer?" She didn't want to guess wrong.

Willow lost a special person on the boat. Her student. He wasn't a lover, he was her student and if she had been there he wouldn't have died. Just like so many times if Buffy had been there then one of the baby slayers would still be alive.

How many baby slayers died because Buffy hadn't been there? Giles always told her to never dwell on the deaths, to remember the fallen soldier, to honor her, but to put them behind her and move on.

"John's mother couldn't stop crying long enough for me …." Buffy heard the words In Clare's voice.

"Will, who was on the computer?" She asked again. While Buffy knew her damnation was earned for using children to fight her war--Willow's wasn't--maybe, just maybe, she could help her.

"Becky, John's fiancée'," the witch mumbled the words so softy that even with slayer hearing Buffy could barely understand them.

"Who was John?" She knew he was a student, just not who he was to Willow.

The Witch glanced over her shoulder before answering. "He was my friend, my student, and so much more."

"You loved him," Buffy pushed.

Willow spun around to face her and the Slayer wondered for second if she'd over stepped their fragile truce. Only as she met Willow's eyes squarely she saw no anger, just pain.

After a few moments Willow, nodded. "I think he replaced Xander, or maybe," she turned away from Buffy. "I think he knew things about me that even Xander didn't know. About--what happened after Tara--I don't think Xander could ever understand that kind of rage. Xander always saw me, as his best friend who was young, naïve, would never hurt a human to win the fight. John understood, You know?" Willow asked, her eyes bright in the rising light of the moon.

Buffy nodded, she did know, even after all these years she still hit the brick wall of Xander's expectation. Xander's innocence was sometimes too much for her.

"John had served in Iraq and we could tell when things were bad for each other by just a look." Willow turned back to the ocean. "Buffy, please don't make me do this now, I just can't right." She pleaded, and what could Buffy say or do? If she insisted Willow talk to her then one of three things could happen, two of them disasters.

The Slayer stepped back, both physically and emotionally. "Ok Will," she said and watched as Willow let out a deep breath. "So…" Buffy thought franticly of something they both could talk about without stepping on a landmine. "I meant to ask you about the force field yesterday? How does it work?"

'Score,' she thought, when Willow flashed her a grateful smile and sat on the bench.