Title: Walking Higher (The Childhood's End Remix) — Part 4/5
Author: Lizbeth Marcs (liz_marcs)
Summary: There’s only one person who’d ask you to give up heaven, and there are four people for whom you’d do it.
Fandom: Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel the Series
Characters: Xander, Dawn, Buffy, Giles, Willow, Cordelia
Pairings: Primarily gen; Buffy/Xander UST; light Giles/Xander slash
Title, Author, and URL of the original Story: Winter Garden by kivrin
Warning: Disturbing imagery and violence. Vague spoilers for all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
iv) i have long desired
to connect your name with some book of mine,
in commemoration of an early friendship that has grown old
between two individuals of widely dissimilar pursuits
A high keening sound escapes your throat as you bury your face into her neck, clutch her tight, and rock back and forth. You feel so stripped, so raw, that you can’t seem to give voice to the one word that keeps pounding through your mind. Why, why, why, why…
You can feel her arms around you, and her hands rubbing up and down your back. “Shhhhhh,” she keeps whispering as she rocks back and forth with you. “Shhhhhh, it’s going to be all right.”
While the pair of you are crouched on the ground against a rough cement-block wall, you cling to her like you’re drowning and your fingers dig into her back. She gasps and arches into you, but there’s nothing sexy about it. This is not high school. This is not a half-forgotten janitor’s closet. And neither one of you are teenagers victimized by an attack of the hormones.
You think you might be hurting her. You think that maybe you should loosen your grip on her just a little bit so she can breathe and you don’t break her ribs.
But you’re too afraid, and you don’t dare let go. You know what’ll happen if you do. You’ve seen it far too often in the Sunnydale cemeteries. You let go. You crumble into dust. What’s left of you will be carried away by a gust of wind.
Then you disappear like you never existed at all.
“C’mon, c’mon,” she sounds soothing, and so unlike the girl you knew — that you maybe even loved — in high school. “You have to let go, even if it’s just a little. I need you to look at me. I need to talk to you.”
You shiver as you stubbornly hold on.
“We don’t have time. You don’t have time. You have to look at me,” she begs.
You can’t do it. Looking at her means seeing…it means seeing…
God, you can feel the heat of the flames. That’s bad enough. But to risk lifting your head, to risk actually seeing what happened…
The sound of flames will haunt your dreams no matter where you go and no matter what happens.
Then you think that maybe you’ll never dream again, and shivering turns to shaking.
Somehow she manages to wiggle out of your bone-crunching hold and break free.
Even though the fire is on your blind side, you can see eternal repetitions of the flames in the dirty storefront windows around you with your one eye. You cover your head with your arms to block out the sight and curl forward toward the ground.
You will yourself to wake up.
Because this has to be bad dream…
The nightmare to end all nightmares…
Not here, not here. Not alone. Not without something more than a toss of a match and the perpetrators fleeing from the scene to mark the occasion.
For this. You survived Sunnydale for this. You can’t even begin to wrap your mind around it.
Strong hands grasp your wrists, and amazingly, impossibly, they force your arms away from your face. “Look at me.” This time she speaks imperiously, like she’s issuing an order that must be obeyed.
You close your eye and refuse to do as you’re told.
There’s a sharp crack across your face with an open palm and you yelp in pain.
You look down at yourself in confusion. You’re still dressed. You’re completely unharmed. You don’t even look dirty, despite the fact that you’ve been running all night.
You cautiously turn your head and regard the bonfire with utter confusion. This isn’t right. It can’t possibly be right. You know what you saw, what you experienced, and yet…
What’s going on?
“Now that I have your attention,” she begins.
You look at her, still horribly confused.
“Stay with me, lamebrain,” she snaps. Even though she’s kneeling on the ground in front of you, she tosses back her hair and throws back her shoulders like she’s posing in one the many junior miss beauty pageants her mother entered her into during middle school. “And before you ask, yes, you’re looking at a pathetic excuse of a Viking funeral. Count on you to get one, only in the totally wrong country. Here’s a tip: next time head north of the equator.”
“Thank you for your moment of sympathy. I’ll treasure it forever,” you snap back at her.
She impishly grins at you, and you realize that you’ve been totally had.
“Now that I have your attention…” She importantly clears her throat. “I’m here to offer you a job.”
Your head jerks toward the fire, but you can’t quite bring yourself to look at it again. Strangely enough, you don’t melt back down into the gibbering wreck you were a few seconds ago. “Ummmm, the timing could be a little bit better.”
She carelessly shrugs. “It’s the only time they could offer it to you.”
“Who’s they?” you ask.
She reaches out, and gently brushes your cheek.
Suddenly, you know. “You’ve got to be kidding,” you deadpan.
“Don’t look at me. I’m just the recruiter,” she says. “I don’t get to pick the job candidates.”
You shake your head as you openly stare at her. Just when you thought things couldn’t get any more complicated, the universe decides to prove how very wrong you are.
“I think you should know that we have a great benefits package,” she begins. “Okay, the pay sucks, mostly because there isn’t any. Company housing is kind of iffy, but that’s mostly because we don’t get that either. Lots of travel though, but you’re used to that so that might not be much of a perk. But! No airlines, no passport, no nothing. Instant teleportation, so I’m thinking total perk. Oh, and the medical care,” she reaches out and snatches your eye patch off your head so quickly that you’re clawing the air to stop her long after it’s gone, “totally the best.”
The world suddenly goes 3D and you can now clearly see everything that’s going on to the left of you. You cringe against the building as a brief moment of dizziness and nausea take over, although you’re not sure if it’s because of your suddenly changed eyesight, or because you’ve now got an even better view of the carnage to your left.
Her hands reach out and gently push you upright. You firmly turn your eyes toward the cement-block wall to block out the sight of the flames.
“There’s a catch,” she gently adds. “The employment contract falls on the eternity side.”
You swallow as you lean your forehead against the wall. There’s still a hint of warmth there, even though it’s starting to match the night chill. “That might be better than the alternative, all things considering.”
“What makes you think you’re heading off to a hell dimension?” She actually sounds a little bit shocked.
It’s the sound of her voice that causes you to look at her. “I wasn’t actually thinking one way or the other.”
Her eyes narrow. “You were thinking ‘poof,’ weren’t you?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
“God you’re still dense personified.” She looks like she wants to throw up her hands. Or maybe slap you again. It’s kind of hard to tell. “Hello? Good soldier? That would be you, by the way. Good soldiers get the good dimensions. As in heaven-ish.”
You start to laugh. Oh, not at her so much, but at the fucked-upness of the situation. “Now I know why you made zero commissions in that dress shop. You’re lousy at retail.”
“But you haven’t heard about the signing bonus,” she says as she reaches out, and again brushes your cheek.
You breathe in sharply and you grab her hand before she can pull it completely away. You kiss her palm, and leave it there at your mouth. Suddenly, nothing is more important than saying yes. The fire to your left, the horror of your day, the mess you’ve made of your life — it’s meaningless by comparison.
“Yeah, thought that’d be the thing that convinced you.”
When you look up, you see that her expression is compassionate. It takes you a little bit by surprise, since it’s so opposite of how you remember her. Maybe you’ve been remembering wrong. Maybe it was always there and you just didn’t see it.
Or maybe, like you, she grew up somewhere along the way.
Her smile is kind of sad as she adds, “You always did love them more than anything else.”
“How long do I have?” you ask. You know you sound hopeful, possibly even pleading.
“A few hours.”
“That’s it?” You drop her hand and stare incredulously at her. “That’s not enough time. That’s not nearly enough time.”
She looks away from you then, but unlike you she doesn’t turn away from the fire. She stares into it, as if it’s the only real thing she can see. “It never is,” she quietly tells you.
You bow your head and consider your options.
This is it. This is all you’re going to get. A few hours in exchange for an eternity involving more of the same, only without the permanent disfigurement or dying.
Much as you love them, much as you want that one last chance to see them, you’re not entirely sure you’re strong enough to take what’s been offered to you.
She touches your shoulder, and you look up.
“I hate to rush you,” and she actually sounds like she does, “but your time’s running out. You’ve got to choose, and you’ve got to choose now.”
You’re still not sure what your answer will be when you open your mouth to speak.
Xander stared into the storefront window at the row of magnets on display and pointedly ignored the crowd hurrying back and forth on the concourse behind him. He couldn’t quite make out what the brightly colored faces were supposed to represent. Masks? Clowns?
It had to be one or the other, he supposed. The base paint was too white, and the painted designs were too garish, and the eyes too empty and black. No way were they meant to actually represent a real human face, albeit one manufactured on mainland China, shipped across the Pacific to California, and trucked here to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Seriously. He couldn’t imagine a worse waste of good fossil fuels if he tried.
Somewhere along the way he shed the coat, the hat, the scarf, and the gloves. Instead he was attired in the kind of stuff he would’ve worn back near the end of his Sunnydale days: regular jeans, work boots, and an unbuttoned flannel shirt with a plain T-shirt underneath. He noticed the duffle bag hadn’t made a return. How he was going to explain why he looked like he walked in off the street instead of stepping off a plane, he had no idea. He supposed that he’d have to wing it if he was asked. He’d mumble something about his luggage getting lost and his coat getting stolen. That might work.
No matter how hard he tried, he still couldn’t figure out how his costume kept changing without him being at all aware of it. Not that he was trying all that hard to figure it out, because, frankly, he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know.
Masks, Xander decided as he turned away from the store window and leaned against the plate glass window. Let’s go with the magnets being masks.
The departure lounge located immediately in front of him was sparsely populated, which was no surprise since the sign announced that the American Airlines Flight 1498 to New Orleans wasn’t due to leave for another 2 hours. The few people there who were taking up seats were either really early for their flight, or taking a break from the hurry-up-and-wait rushing of the crowd.
And quite a crowd it was. Non-stop. Noisy. Chaotic. It looked more like a river crashing over and around rocks than an actual stream of people running to get from Point A to Point B in time for their flights. The movement patterns of individuals within the mass were endlessly fascinating in a way that he couldn’t quite name.
He startled. He managed to hear that shout over the din of a busy airport.
This time he turned toward the sound of the voice. He burst into a grin when he saw Willow hopping up and down as she ran forward through crowd, her hand in the air and waving furiously at him. He raised his hand and wildly waved back in response.
Willow finally reached him, looking flushed and clearly out of breath. “It’s you! It really is you!” she exclaimed as she reached up and threw her arms around his neck.
He grinned as he hunched down to bury his face into her shoulder and return the hug.
Willow suddenly stiffened.
Slowly, very slowly, Willow’s arms slid from around his neck.
“W-w-willow?” Xander stuttered the question as he loosened his own hug. In the back of his mind, something clicked to red alert and whooped a warning.
Willow stepped away and stared up into his face. Her expression was beyond resolve-face. It was already ratcheted up to fury, and heading right into explosive with frightening speed.
“Where?” she growled.
Xander was taken aback. “What? Willow, what are you talking—”
Willow snatched up his right hand. She had it trapped in a death grip.
“Ow! Willow! Hey!” Xander yelped.
Her left hand joined her right, effectively holding his hand in vise made of flesh, even as her narrowed eyes bored into him. “Don’t lie to me. Don’t you dare lie to me Xander Lavelle Harris.”
Xander froze. She knew. He didn’t know how she knew, but she knew.
Her lips narrowed into a thin a line and her face went bone white.
Xander swallowed, and answered her question. “Nairobi.”
She closed her eyes and her chin began to tremble. She did not loosen the grip on his hand. “When?” she asked, barely above a whisper.
“A few hours ago, or maybe I mean a few hours from now. I’m not exactly sure.”
Willow opened her eyes and gave him a disbelieving look.
“My sense of time…it’s a little bit on the gooey side right now,” Xander admitted.
Willow’s face crumbled. “There must be something I can—”
“There’s nothing,” he interrupted. “It’s over, or it soon will be.”
Fury returned in full force to Willow’s expression. “It’s them, isn’t it?” she spit as her eyes began to take on a darker shade.
“No!” Xander shouted as he surged forward and captured her in the tightest hug he could manage.
She stiffened against him, even tried to pull away, but he held fast.
He whispered desperately into the top of her head. “No. No. No. Please Willow. Not like this. No. Don’t. Not for me. Never for me. Don’t. Just don’t. Please Willow. Don’t…”
Something must’ve finally penetrated her anger, because eventually Willow sagged into the hug. She buried her face more firmly into his chest and her arms moved up to encircle his waist. Her shoulders shook and she was breathing hard.
As Xander softly crooned some kind of nonsense that everything would be all right, he mentally breathed a sigh of relief that rampaging Willow had been headed off at the pass. Well, at least now he knew why he wasn’t outfitted in the latest fashion for desperate travelers. Willow was too powerful a witch to fool, so there was no point in even trying.
While it made his job a lot easier, in some ways it made it a lot harder.
Xander felt Willow give a deep, shuddering breath before she slowly, almost reluctantly let him go.
Willow’s face was pale, and her jaw was set in that achingly familiar way that told him she was willing herself not to cry. Despite putting on her brave face, it looked like it wouldn’t take much to send Willow over the edge.
It killed him to see her like this.
Willow swallowed hard and scared up a weak grin. “Well, at least I know you’re not the First.”
“Yeah. The touchy-feely takes me out of the running,” Xander awkwardly agreed.
Willow drew in another shuddering breath and, just like clockwork the questions, or rather the beginning of questions, spilled out of her mouth. “How — I mean, why— I don’t underst—”
“Not here,” Xander quickly interrupted.
Willow gave her head a shake. “You can’t answer anything?”
“Yes. No. Sort of. It depends. I think,” Xander stuttered. “It’s just that I’d just rather do the talking thing while not standing in the middle of an airport concourse.”
Willow’s hands fluttered. “Oh! Right. Yeah, you probably would like to sit down and relax. Actually, now that I think about, I really need to sit down, although I probably won’t be much with the relaxing part because of, well, you know. Not that I’m nervous about you or anything but, actually, I might be a little nervous because of, ummm, you know. I mean, it’s not often that—”
“Breathe, Will.” Xander couldn’t resist grinning at her, despite the horrible overall situation.
“Right. Breathe.” Willow automatically nodded. “Ummm, I passed a place that looked something like an airport-type steakhouse. At least it had a steakhouse-like theme, but I don’t know if it’s actually a steakhouse or just pretending to be one. But it’s pretty dark and didn’t look too crowded, which, not a surprise because it’s after lunch.”
“Sounds good,” Xander agreed.
“Okay,” Willow nodded again. “Follow me.” She turned around and walked a few steps away. Xander had just started following her when she whirled around and asked, “Do the others know?”
Xander stopped short in order to prevent a collision. “Not yet.”
“Oh, okay,” Willow nodded as she turned and started walking again. Once more Xander managed to get in a few steps before Willow whirled around again, forcing him to stop short again, and asked, “Do you, ummm, do you want me to call? Let them know what happened?”
“If you do it’s going to fiercely weird them out,” Xander said.
“Oh,” Willow looked troubled. “Okay, I can see that. They’re going to want to know how I know and you might not want them to know that we talked.”
“Unh, actually…” Xander awkwardly cleared his throat, “It’s really not a good idea because while I’m here talking to you, I’m also sitting in a Starbucks near UCLA talking to Dawn, and I’m hanging out with Buffy in her secret apartment in Rome, and I’m walking around the U.S. Botanical Garden with Giles. If you call any of them right this second to break the news, they’re going be staring at me and wondering who the hell I am.”
Willow stared at him as if she couldn’t quite believe that she heard what she just did. She blinked. Then she appeared to think about it some more.
“All of us at the same time?” she finally squeaked.
Xander waggled a hand. “Yes. No. Sort of. It’s hard to explain.”
“Oh. Okay.” Willow was still blinking in a bewildered manner. “So you want me to call them later. I guess. To let them know?”
“Hold off until you meet up with Giles in DC,” Xander said.
Willow’s eyebrows rose. “You know about that? Wait. What am I saying? Giles probably told you…told you…” She looked at him helplessly. “While you were talking just now?”
“He didn’t mention you were coming.” On her disbelieving look, he shrugged. “He’s a little distracted. Actually, he’s a lot distracted at the moment. Let’s just say that I know without Giles telling me, okay? Don’t ask how because it’s…it’s…complicated.”
“I think we’re already way past complicated.”
Willow really had him there.
“By the time you get to DC, the others will be looking for an explanation about the weirdness that is me,” Xander said. “At least you’ll be able to give it to them. I mean, if you want to. If you think it’ll be too awkward or anything, you don’t have—”
“I’ll do it,” Willow firmly interrupted.
Willow nodded as she turned around again. This time she didn’t bother taking a step before she turned around and faced him again.
“Ummmm,” she lifted her left hand, but stopped short of touching the left side of his face. “Is it okay if I — or maybe could you — I was wondering if—”
Well, there really wasn’t any point in keeping it any more, was there? He’d been well and truly busted.
Xander nodded, reached up, and pulled off the eye patch. Suddenly his horizons broadened and the world went fully 3D.
Willow sucked in a sharp breath. Her mouth trembled upwards in smile and her eyes once again shined with unshed tears as she touched his left cheek. “You look you again,” she said softly.
“Yeah,” he answered just as softly, “I kind of missed the eye.”
Willow’s face scrunched up into a full-on happy smile. “C’mon. Let’s find ourselves a quiet corner and talk.”
“Before we do that…” Xander whirled around and purposely walked over to trash barrel. He threw the eye patch through the opening with more force than was necessary. He straightened up to his full height and gave the trash barrel a triumphant grin. “Good riddance.”
As he turned to walk back to Willow, he saw that she was grinning a happy grin herself. “You enjoyed that an awful lot,” she said.
“I’m barely containing a Snoopy dance to celebrate the occasion,” Xander agreed as he fell into step next to her.
Willow bopped her head in agreement, as she curled her arm around his left one. “Vicariously there with ya.”
The steakhouse-type place turned out to be after the second departure lounge they passed. Xander was grateful that Willow kept the conversation to casual chatter about how she had to leave Rio with no warning and without telling anyone because Giles cautioned that secrecy was of the upmost importance, and the problems involved in getting a one-way ticket from Rio to DC when one didn’t have any luggage to check.
“So, what you see me wearing is pretty much all I have on me,” Willow concluded as they entered the airport restaurant, which was as dark as Willow had advertised despite the massive north-facing windows overlooking various airplane gates. “At least my wallet and passport can fit into my fanny pack, so I’m not completely stuck. But I still had to do some glamour here and there so airport security wouldn’t look at me too closely.”
A waitress strode by them and vaguely waved at the tables with a, “You’re free to sit anywhere.”
Xander purposely led Willow to one of the tables near a window.
“Wouldn’t you rather—” Willow indicated a table in a deeply shadowed corner of the restaurant with a jerk of her head.
“I’d rather sit where I can see sunlight, even if the view could be a lot better,” Xander said as he plopped into his chosen seat.
“Fair enough.” Instead of sitting down, though, Willow turned to face the rest of the restaurant. She mumbled a little bit of Latin, just loud enough for Xander to hear, and gave her hand a little wave.
Xander raised his eyebrows as Willow turned around and sat in her seat. Seeing his reaction, she uncomfortably shrugged.
“It’s so if anyone looks at us, they’ll see two old friends flirting over lunch.” Willow’s eyes suddenly got big and her expression looked like a light bulb had gone off over her head. “Unless you don’t eat. Or drink. I should’ve asked. Ummm, you do eat and drink, right? Actually, you probably don’t. Sorry. I should’ve realized that I was being really insensitive. We can leave if you want. Someplace where there’s no food. Or drink. If it would make you feel more comfortable, I mean.”
“I can eat. I can drink. No, I’m not hungry. Yes, I could use a cup of coffee.”
Willow made a ‘hunh’ face just as a waitress materialized at their table to take their orders. Coffee for him, tea for Willow. The brief interaction complete, the waitress hurried off to fill their orders.
“I’ll make sure to leave a really good tip for our table rent,” Willow said. She immediately fell to ripping apart the paper napkin on the table. “So…” she awkwardly began.
“So…” Xander echoed, feeling just as awkward as Willow sounded.
Willow bit her lip and took a deep breath, but she still didn’t look at him. “I…I don’t want you to take this wrong way, like I’m not happy to see you or anything. Because I am. Happy to see you, I mean. Really, really happy. I was just wondering why…I mean…Why didn’t…Why couldn’t—”
“Tara do what I’m doing?” Xander gently finished for her.
Willow miserably nodded.
“I don’t know.”
Willow looked up at him with suspiciously bright eyes. “When you say you don’t know, does that mean you really don’t know? Or that you’re not allowed to tell me? Or that you won’t tell me?”
“In this case, I don’t know actually means I don’t know.” Xander helplessly shrugged. “I think my situation falls into the realm of unique.”
“Trying not to say ‘duh’ here.”
Xander barked a laugh. Okay, that was a really stupid thing to say. “I’ve been offered a job.”
This statement earned him another round of owlish blinking from Willow. “Don’t you think the timing’s just a little bit off?”
“It was the only time they could offer it to me.”
Willow gave him a dose of what-the-hell face.
Since Willow already pretty much knew all there was to know about his situation, it was probably okay to tell her the truth. “You ever hear of something called The Powers That Be?”
Willow’s eyes got very wide as she slowly nodded. “That’s…that’s really big,” she said with her voice barely above a whisper. “Oh, Xander…my God. Do you have any idea what you just gave up?”
Now Xander looked down and began tearing at his own napkin. “Visiting you, Dawn, Buffy, and Giles was my signing bonus,” he answered, as if it explained everything. The truth was it really didn’t. Looking back on it, he realized that his reasons for agreeing to this were more complicated than that.
Hunh. It appeared he was getting layers. Better late than never, he supposed.
“Even though you didn’t say it, I so hear a ‘but’ after the word ‘bonus,’” Willow flatly stated.
The waitress interrupted Xander’s answer by returning with the coffee and tea.
As soon as she walked away, Xander said, “You’ve got me. There is a but.”
“I have to deliver a message or…or…do something during my visits. The situation with the Council,” here Xander waved toward the restaurant’s entrance to indicate the world outside, “has Buffy and Giles seriously questioning themselves in a way that’s heading for straight for self-destructive-ville. Buffy’s already thinking she needs to start carrying the world on her shoulders again, and we both know what happens when she gets into that mindset. As for Giles, he’s so busy hiding behind technology and wrapped up in protective spells that he’s practically drowning in his sense of isolation. As for Dawn,” here Xander shrugged, “when everything blows wide open, she’s going to be torn up trying to figure out what she should do. She needs to know that it’s okay if she makes the decision that’s right for her, even if it makes other people unhappy, because that’s what’s going to do the most good for everyone in the long run.”
Willow leaned forward and put her elbows on the table. Her expression was troubled. “That sounds an awful lot like directly meddling in the affairs of mortals. The Powers That Be aren’t supposed to do that.”
“I’m not meddling,” Xander defensively said.
Willow raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Think of it as me giving my last piece of unsolicited advice or offering some unexpected comfort,” Xander said with an uneasy shrug. “Once it’s all said and done, people can either ignore it or take it to heart. It’s completely up to them.”
Willow shook her head. “And the fact that they’ll all take it to heart once they find out the truth is just a bonus, isn’t it?”
“Doesn’t mean it’ll stick. I hope it will, but there are no guarantees.”
“Fair enough.” Willow fixed him with a serious look of her own. “Since I’m the list of visitees, I figure there’s something you need to tell me. I guess it’s too much to hope that you’re here just to hang out for a little while, hunh?”
Xander looked away from her and out the window. In the distance, he could see airplanes taxiing up and down the various runways. This was the part he really dreaded.
“Going by the look on your face, I’m guessing that whatever you have to say to me is pretty bad.” Willow sounded stricken. “I don’t suppose you could not tell me and just pretend that you did, could you?”
Xander swallowed, took a deep breath, and looked back at her. His heart thudded heavily in his chest, and it took everything he had to keep his breathing normal.
“The look on your face…I guess it really is that bad.” Now Willow sounded scared.
The most Xander could do was soft-soap the message a little bit, but there was no disguising that it was a pretty harsh warning.
“Willow…” Xander began as he leaned forward and grabbed one of her hands his own. He kept his eyes on her face even as his thumb gently stroked the back of her hand. “I don’t need to say anything or do anything to point you to the right path. You’re exactly where you need to be. But then again, you already know that.”
“I don’t understand. Then why—”
“You know that because you’ve been operating on a completely different level since you cast the spell empowering all of the Potentials,” Xander interrupted her. “The kind of level where you can see every possibility and every possible consequence of every possible decision as it comes up. You see patterns Willow, but you don’t see them like everyone else. You see them like you’re looking down on a maze from an airplane flying overhead. You can see all the dead-ends, the traps, and the safe paths. The big picture. Everyone else has to stumble through that same maze and figure it out for themselves, assuming they ever figure it out at all.”
Willow’s eyes were worried. Her chin trembled. “I haven’t told anyone at all. I’ve been really careful about that.”
Xander sighed. That was so not what he meant. It was vitally important that Willow understand. “What I’m trying to say is that I’m on that same level as you now.”
Willow sagged as if all of her bones had turned to rubber as she let out a relieved breath. She squeezed his hand and smiled a shaky smile at him. “So you know.” She closed her eyes as her smile got wider. She looked like she wanted to laugh from sheer joy. “Oh, thank God, you know.”
Xander wished he could share in her relief, but the bad part was still coming. Still, he couldn’t resist smiling back at her and giving her hand a squeeze before he let it go. “Yeah, I do know.”
Willow calmed down, and her expression became serious. “I know the time’s coming when I’m going to have to break away from the Council.”
“I know,” Xander said.
Willow jutted her chin forward and put on her resolve face, “Not until after the civil war gets resolved. Not for a few years after that, either.”
“Willow, I know.”
Willow snapped a nod. “Good.” She burst into a grin. “Just checking to see if I was right.”
Xander rolled his eyes. “I know that, too.”
Willow sighed. “But I know when I break away it’ll be because I have to. It’ll be because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t think Buffy or Giles are going to see it that way, though.”
“They won’t,” Xander agreed. “It’ll take them a long time to realize you were right to do what you’re going to do, assuming they ever do realize it.”
“Well, what you’re telling me is not great news,” Willow said. “It’s not a surprise, though. Although I admit I’m kind of relieved overall. I’m not going to start dancing jigs or jumping up in the air and shouting ‘yahoo’ or anything, just so we’re clear. It’s just that going by the expression on your face earlier, I was expecting something so much worse.”
Xander steeled his nerve. This was the part that was going to suck. “That’s because I haven’t reached the bad part, yet.”
Xander tried not to clench his hands. There was no sugar-coating this. No matter which way he looked at it, the warning was going to sound as unforgiving and as harsh as it was meant to be.
There was nothing he could do but tell her.
“Willow, you’re alive and you’re human. That means you’ve got free will. You can make your own decisions, good and bad, and no one is going to step in and stop you. It’s your life. It’s your right to make mistakes or do bad things,” Xander began.
“But I’m not planning to do that,” Willow said in a small voice.
“No one plans to do it,” Xander said. “Do you honestly think that the Watchers who’ve decided to overthrow Giles and the Council think they’re wrong?”
“Xander, they’re planning to stomp out all demonic influence in the world through the effective use of world domination,” Willow said as she leaned forward. “How is that not wrong?”
“They don’t think it’s wrong. They think it’s the only way,” Xander pointed out. “It’s a case of good intentions gone really, really evil.”
Willow nervously licked her lips. “Good intentions,” she softly repeated.
Xander let out a relieved breath. He should’ve known that Willow would figure out where this conversation was heading. She always was smarter than he was. She didn’t know the worst of it, though. How could she? But at least she was mentally getting into a crash position. It didn’t really help, but it couldn’t hurt.
“Even given the fact that you’ve got the free-will going for you, because you are who you are, because you are what you are, you’ve got,” Xander paused before nervously adding, “restrictions.”
Willow nodded, but didn’t look directly at him. “Like not imposing my will on either people because I think I know best.”
Xander nodded back. “That’s not to say you won’t know best, because you probably will. But Willow, sometimes you have to let people stumble through the maze on their own. I’m not saying don’t help. I’m not saying don’t point them in the right direction. But you can’t push them, Willow. You can’t make anyone do anything against their will. If they screw up, they screw up. If they make mistakes or turn evil, you can’t play puppet master and make it all better. Screwing with people’s free will is stepping over the line.”
Willow looked him in the eye. She was putting on the brave face, even though Xander could see that she was rattled. “And if I step over that line or any line like it, The Powers That Be will step in. Because of who and what I am. That’s what you’re telling me.”
Xander swallowed. This was the part he really hated. “They’ll go after you with everything they’ve got, and they’ll put me in charge of taking you down.”
Willow’s eyes didn’t waver from his face.
“And if I have to go after you, Willow, I don’t have to tell you that it won’t end in hugs. Tears maybe, but no hugs.” Xander hoped his voice was steady, because right now he didn’t feel all that steady. He had never threatened Willow in his life, yet here he was after it was all over doing just that. It made him feel sick. “What’s more, if they go after you, if I go after you, you’ll lose. You know it. I know it.”
Willow said nothing. She didn’t even move.
Xander sagged back in his chair and stared dejectedly at his tea. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Xander winced as he heard the sound of a chair scrapping across the floor. Of course she was furious. Of course she was going to storm out of the restaurant and leave him here alone.
When a tiny, Willow-shaped hand landed on top of his, he startled and looked up.
Willow looked every bit as miserable as he felt. When she saw that she had his attention, she said in a low voice, “Don’t apologize. I knew sooner or later some higher power was going to land the smackdown. It was matter of time. We both know that.”
Xander looked away. “Just so you know? That’s not making me feel any better.”
Willow’s hand slid off his, and Xander found himself missing its warmth.
“Well, delivering a smackdown is better than just getting smited with no warning,” Willow admitted. “And if a smackdown had to be delivered, I’m glad it’s from someone I know and trust instead of stranger.”
Xander slouched lower in his chair. “Amazing. That actually made me feel even worse. Five seconds ago, I wouldn’t have thought that possible.”
“Xander, don’t do this.” There was an edge of irritation in Willow’s voice. “At least if I hear it from you, I know it’s the truth. Anyone else? I wouldn’t be so sure and I’d be more inclined to ignore it.”
Xander looked up into Willow’s face. “Can you please stop trying to be so nice? In your shoes, I’d be ranting and raving about what I jerk I am.”
“Unless it was me giving the smackdown, then you wouldn’t be able to apologize enough.” Willow’s smile was on the weak side.
Xander took a deep breath through his nose and regarded his coffee cup. He hadn’t taken a sip the entire time he sat at the table, and he wasn’t in the least bit tempted to rectify that. He had a feeling that the acrid taste of cheap airport coffee would make him feel more ill than he already did.
Besides, it was probably cold anyway.
“I don’t know about you, but I need to get out of here,” Xander finally said.
“I hear that,” Willow agreed as she rummaged around in her fanny pack. As Xander got on his feet, Willow threw $20 on the table.
Xander raised an eyebrow at that.
Willow gave him a mutinous look. “I’ve decided to go with a random act of kindness.”
Xander glanced at their waitress before looking back at Willow. “And the fact that you know her car’s breaking down tonight and that she’s going to have to call a cab to get home has absolutely nothing to do with this random act of kindness, right?”
Willow attempted to look angelic. “Maybe.”
Xander broke into a grin and flung and arm around Willow’s shoulders. “Too bad it’s a 50-50 shot that she’ll spend it on a lottery ticket instead.”
Willow shrugged, but didn’t try to escape the half embrace. “That’s kinda up to her.”
And just like that, Xander knew it was going to be okay. “That’s my girl.”
“No, that’s your bad-ass, hottie-tottie, mama-jama Wicca girl,” Willow corrected as she grinned up at him. Apparently, she had sensed the shift to the positive herself.
The two of the quickly left the restaurant and inserted themselves back into the stream of people running to and fro on the concourse. Rather than trying to keep up with the flow, however, they rambled at a much slower pace, forcing people to step around them if they wanted to pass.
Xander’s arm slipped from around Willow’s shoulders. In response, she reached down and grabbed his hand.
“Xander, thank you,” she said without looking at him. “Like I said, I know what you gave up so you could be here with me and the others. It means more to me than you can possibly know, unless you do know, in which case, I still think it needs to be said.”
“Worth it,” Xander firmly answered without looking at her.
Willow stopped, forcing Xander to stop as well. He turned to face her and found that she had done the same.
“It shouldn’t have been us, you know,” she said just loud enough to be heard over the hubbub of the busy airport. “You and me? The way we were? You remember. You with your Tweety Bird watch and me with my Sears catalog clothes. It should’ve never been us.”
“Yeah, well, once we got beyond the point of no return, it had to be us,” Xander countered.
“For me it was the night Buffy went to face down the Master,” Willow said. “When I walked into the A/V room and saw all those people I knew ripped to shreds, when I saw the Master’s minions had turned our world into theirs…” Her voice trailed off as she shuddered against the memory.
“It was when I staked Jesse,” Xander quietly admitted.
Willow looked up into his face. “We should’ve had more time. We should’ve had a lot more time before our futures got locked in, you and me. Don’t you think? Other people get more time. Some people never get locked in at all. We should’ve at least had more time.”
“Yeah. More time would’ve been nice,” Xander agreed.
Willow looked away, and took a deep breath. She was steeling her nerves, Xander knew. She would probably fall apart after he left, but she wasn’t going to shed so much as tear while he could still see her. For that, he was inordinately grateful to her.
When she looked back up at him, her smile was just a little too bright. “So, will I get to see you again?”
Xander looked away and focused on the people swirling around them. “I don’t know. Maybe yes. Maybe no. Depends.”
“Depends on if I go wrong, you mean,” Willow corrected. He sensed, more than saw, her smile dim.
“Or unless I have to give you the head’s up about something really bad coming down the pike.” Xander looked back down at her. “And by ‘bad,’ I mean dimension-ending bad, not just world-ending bad.”
“In other words, if I see you again I should panic.”
“That’s about the gist.”
Willow’s chin began to tremble. “Is it really bad of me to hope that something dimension-ending bad comes up so I can see you again?”
Instead of admitting that he didn’t think the sentiment was bad at all, Xander pulled her into a hug. Willow didn’t even hesitate. Her arms were around his waist and squeezing him tight.
God knew how long they clung to each other, selfishly absorbing each other’s warmth, and swaying side-to-side in the middle of that airport concourse. All Xander knew was that he never wanted to let go, because letting go meant saying good-bye for good.
Saying good-bye to Willow was somehow worse than saying good-bye to the others, if only because she knew the end was well and truly nigh.
Without a word he bent down, kissed the crown of Willow’s head, and let her go even as he fiercely wished that he didn’t have to.
Xander turned away without a backwards glance. He knew that if he did, he’d shatter into a million pieces. Worse, he was afraid that looking back might cause her to do the same.
He let himself get lost in the busily rushing airport crowd as soon as he could.