The excitement’s passed. I’m a limp noodle. A barbequed limp noodle, extra smoky, that’s somehow avoided becoming crunchy munchy. No sauce.
Oh, and with extra burny badness inside my noodle nose. Can’t forget that. It won’t let me. A river threatens to gush from it and I run, sort of. It’s not like limpness makes one overly nimble. I snatch two tissues from the box on the counter we use as a makeup table and fix the problem. But again I manage only sort of. It takes two more tissues to actually stem the flow.
After chucking the tissues, I turn back to the doorway where Buffy stands sentry. Actually, ‘crouches sentry’ would be more accurate. She’s been having the same issue, but she’s chosen the—umm…more utilitarian solution. Her right sleeve—actually, I think that’s Xander’s coat.
Xander’s right sleeve looks like it belongs to a toddler with a cold…and inattentive parents. I quickly try to imagine how it would be to help her with that problem like my mom used to help me. To spare Xander’s coat, of course. Too strange for even me is my verdict. She’s fine. Even a love like ours—with its deep respect and lasting friendship—has limits. I return to her side.
Neither of our friends has entered our dorm room. Xander leans against the door frame. Giles, just behind him, looks over his shoulder. They could come in. I start to say so when Giles announces his intent to leave, “I trust that you have things well in hand from here.”
I’m not sure I trust any such thing, but keeping him if he wants to go wouldn’t be fair. It’s not like we’re in any danger. “Yeah, we’ll be fine,” I reply.
“Very well,” Giles says with hints of amusement in his tone. “You ladies have a pleasant evening.”
I fail to see what’s funny, but I guess the situation is, in a certain light. A light that’s exempt from having to cope with the fallout.
He disappears from view, leaving only Xander to help me manage. I’m going to have to let him go too. Anything else would just be weird, which means that soon I’ll be alone with Buffy, left as her caretaker until this—whatever this is—passes.
Until she evolves.
Watching the process might be interesting. Educational even. I wonder if it’ll be quick or if she’ll gradually gain cognitive function and coordination, stepping from Cro-Magnon to modern homo sapient over a period of hours, not minutes. That could be fascinating.
Really, I’m too exhausted to observe the transformation. With any luck we’ll both be asleep when it happens. Though I’m not positive I can sleep like this, with the stench and the grubbiness. I’ll probably have nightmares. Coming to with flames that close to your face—the intense heat—gagging on lungfuls of smoke—it isn’t pleasant.
“Are you going to be okay?” Xander asks, perhaps picking up on my unrest.
Buffy must sense it too because she moves closer like she means to protect me. It’s weird. I guess crouching like that is what’s comfortable for her. No idea why. Her body’s made to stand erect just like mine. Hunching over is always hard on my back. What I do know is that her clinging to my thigh is just plain bizarre.
“I think I’m becoming Dystychiphobic,” I admit. We’ve been covering phobias in Professor Walsh’s class and this is the one from the list I can actually see myself having.
No surprise, Xander looks at me like I’ve said something unintelligible. I’m being weird. But not just ‘Latin’ weird, like ‘I don’t understand’ weird. He’s pretty used to not understanding. He normally shrugs that off. This is a different kind of weird. An ‘absurd’ weird, like ‘I enjoy juggling goldfish.’ That kind of weird.
“Whosiwhatsit? Wha's that?” he sputters.
“The fear of accidents,” I explain. Though I think just now I’m more at the ‘dread’ stage. Is there a term for the dread of accidents?
He replies, “Y’know they make a pill for that, right?” and I have no idea what he means. He has to fill in, “The Pill,” for me to understand, and then I just blush and stammer.
“Oh, uh…no.” I want to say that to Buffy too. She’s nuzzling my leg. It seems like it might be affectionate at first, but I get the feeling now that she’s just using me as a hanky. Whatever her motive, it’s distracting. I’d like to shoo her away, but I end up stroking her hair instead.
I get over her and turn my attention back to Xander. His bad jokes have always meant to me that I need to explain. I know that’s stupid, but strange compulsions are—well, strange. They aren’t supposed to make sense. In spite of all of the weirdness and my embarrassment, I clarify, “I was trapped in a burning building, Xander.”
“Fire Bad!” Buffy exclaims. I think she’s trying to be helpful.
“Yes, Buffy, fire bad,” I agree, glancing to where my hand rests on her head. She looks up at me through a mat of wavy blonde hair. It’s time to call it a night. Between Xander being the funny kind of dense and Buffy clinging to my leg, communication is a lost cause. I reach for the edge of the door. “Good night.”
“You’re sure you don’t need me to stay?” he asks. “It wouldn’t be a big deal.” His concern is apparent and probably appropriate, but I brush it off by flashing my best reassuring smile.
“We’ll be fine,” I reply, sounding almost tired—the impatient kind, though I’m most certainly the other kind too.
My act works. He turns away, giving me leave to shut the door. “Night,” I repeat and he echoes my sentiment.
I realize only moments later what a huge mistake I’ve made. I have to shoo Buffy off in order to move. “Please?” I say as gently as I can with a gentle push and an apologetic look. Slow, careful over-exaggeration is what seems to work best with her. I get the distinct impression again that even in her limited state, she wants to protect me, like that’s somehow hardwired into the very core of who she is. That much is touching, but it’s also occurred to me that what she’s going through must be terribly confusing. Confusion can be bigger and scarier than any monster, so for now ‘gentle’ is the watchword. Becoming the monster counterpart to her slayeriness would be—
I don’t even want to think about it. ‘Painful’ is a fair estimate. And I’m perfectly happy leaving it at that.
The inclination to talk down to her is definitely there, but I don’t. Treating her like a child when she so clearly isn’t one would be wrong. Plus, there’s also the minor chance that she’ll remember some of this.
When she takes the hints and slinks away, I go to the door. Xander’s long gone. In fact, there isn’t a single soul in the hallway. It’s late. He could’ve watched her while I got cleaned up.
Oh well. I shut the door and lock it.
Buffy doesn’t care about cleanliness anyway. She will, but for the moment, she’s content with being filthy. I really should just lie down and try to sleep, but I can’t stand smelling like this. It isn’t just wood smoke, like a bonfire. This is the thick, acrid, black smoke of a house fire with all of its noxious chemicals. But taking a shower would be impossible unless I take her with me. And while that sounds great in theory…
She still sits on her haunches, which is a strange thing to think considering this is Buffy, but in this context it’s perfectly fitting. Her knuckles rest against the floor to provide stability. Her pose is the very picture of all of those drawings you see of primitive man. But instead of gross and hairy, she’s strikingly beautiful.
Her head tilts as she stares at her artistic attempts from earlier. Vibrant drawings rendered in marker and makeup, all of which she likely destroyed. Though I can only see her profile, it’s as if she finds the stick figures and their crude surrounds compelling.
All I see is a potential infraction and uncomfortable explanation if we don’t get that painted over before the dorm monitor stops by. While we might claim that a niece or nephew drew the pictures, there would no doubt be concern for the child. Some of the subject matter is on the ‘wow’ side of disturbing.
Anyway, she’s occupied and not in any mischief, which is new. Maybe I can sneak away. “I’m going to get ready for bed,” I announce, turning to make my way across the room. My hair will still smell awful, but at least I can fix part of the ickiness.
“Sleepy,” she says, sounding somewhat sympathetic. Though the last thing she seems now is tired.
I find jammies in my dresser and glance her way. She meets my eyes. Hers glisten in the low light of our room. She’s alert, awake, and curious.
Joy. So much for bed. And I’m beat. Have no idea how I’m going to stay awake, but I have to.
I disappear behind the screen to change. Being out of these stinky, sticky clothes should be an improvement, but I can’t help longing for a shower. The steam would help clear my head. The warm water would soothe my sore muscles. Sweet smelling soaps would wash away the noxious smells of the fire. It sounds heavenly, but not now. Now I have to settle for soft cotton that clings to my sooty skin.
Buffy’s behind me. She’s so quiet. The awareness comes as more of an impression than anything else. I glance over my shoulder. She’s been undressing too, mimicking me. She holds her bra by its sides, stretched tight around her middle as though she was wriggling out of it when she got ‘caught.’
But that almost makes it sound like my attention matters to her. It doesn’t. Not as far as I can tell.
The mystery of the bra clasp was apparently too much for her. It’s a wonder it doesn’t tear free when she stretches her bra over her hips to finish the job. The delicate, lacy, rose colored garment gets kicked into the pile of clothing behind her.
Although topless, she isn’t exactly naked. Her wavy golden locks obscure her breasts. Once again, she’s the very picture of the primitive, but in a striking way. A primal goddess, beautiful, with a cool edge that suggests a capacity for capricious ruthlessness.
That’s a silly thought. I dismiss it. Right now, I’ll just be happy for her hair. She’s still one of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever seen. Male or female isn’t that significant. The effect is the same.
The effect is annoying!
She’s my friend. My best friend. That status has entitled me to occasional glimpses of her in frilly lace or shiny satin, usually all-too skimpy unmentionables which sent me cowering behind my books to hide my body’s betrayal. The same betrayal I’m experiencing now with no way of concealing it. Waves of heat spread from my cheeks. There’s nothing I can do. The whole me gradually turns what I’m sure is a stunning shade of pink. Something like an unripe strawberry. Good thing she’s always been too self-involved or preoccupied to notice. Now she probably just doesn’t understand.
I’m grateful. I prefer to keep lusty, wrong thoughts about my friends to a minimum…and to myself. That thing between Xander and me was enough to pretty much put a kibosh on anything like this. Not that things could ever be the same between me and Buffy. First of all, there’s Oz. Even with that hussy Veruca in the picture, I can’t hurt him like that again. In a pinch I might even admit that I deserve a little Veruca in my life after what I did.
This really isn’t anything but a temporary problem. I can’t see Buffy ever being attracted to me in any way, except the way she is now with the listening and the occasional problem solving and the offering of support and advice. The ‘friendship’ thing.
Still, repeating that at all, even with the unrequited one-sidedness or the simplest of naughty thoughts, isn’t on my to-do list. “Would you like some clean clothes?” I ask. The sooner she’s dressed…
Using the word ‘clean’ is a huge mistake. She echoes it. Her tone carries hints of excitement and greed. Maybe she’s more Buffy-like than I thought. She moves to sniff and returns a verdict, “Buffy smell bad.”
Oh boy. ‘Buffy clean’ becomes her new mantra as she struggles with her sweatpants. A similar sense of urgency affects her speech, making me doubt that anything short of exactly what I dread will appease her. Basically, I’m paddle-free, rudderless and speeding downstream.
The tie at her waist is too complex. Though it’s the last thing I want to do, I step forward to pull the knot free before she rips her clothes. And my pajama top isn’t even buttoned. She sloughs everything off in one swift motion and stands before me naked and unaffected. To my surprise, her pubic hair looks natural. Of course it is scrupulously trimmed. I expected—
Y’know what? I don’t know what I expected.
I expected to never have to deal with this. She could crouch down now and it wouldn’t be a bad thing. But no, she stands there being her gorgeous, vibrant self, and foolish me, I watch. I can’t take my eyes off of her golden skin and hair, the sensuous curve of her body, the muscle definition that comes through in spite of her softness, the flatness of her belly, the fullness of her breasts, which are probably smallish by other, bigger people standards, but are exactly perfect for her. That’s the entire problem. She’s perfect. My fingernails dig into my palms. I’m totally affected by something I should never have seen. That’s pretty much me. My curse. I have years of experience with this.
Well, not exactly this—this is the first time I’ve seen Buffy naked, thank God—but things similar to this. I didn’t just hate gym class because I’m a klutz. That was part of it, of course. Being the brunt of everyone’s jokes wasn’t a laugh riot. But there were other, more embarrassing factors involved. Not knowing what I could or should look at. Being curious. Not being able to look at anything, not even my locker, without blushing. The whole thing was mortifying.
It wasn’t just the standard social stuff. That was bad, but I had my family and my background to claw at my conscience too. We weren’t Orthodox by any stretch, but at the core, my parent’s beliefs are pretty traditional. They are Jewish. And I was too. I’m not sure what I am now, but back then, what I was feeling was the gravest of sins and I was helpless against it. My reaction was—is purely biological. I’m just wired wrong. Feeling that conflicted was horrible. It isn’t as bad now, but—
I can’t exactly reason with Buffy on those grounds. Even if she was just Buffy Buffy, I couldn’t. Explaining the problem would again be mortifying.
So, I guess we’re going to take a shower. Yay!
First things first, I get her robe from the closet. The less naked-Buffy I have to deal with, the better. I grab my robe too. I have to juggle them a little to get hers around her shoulders. She handles the sleeves herself, which is a little surprising, but tying the sash is my job. I finish without doing anything dumb, grateful to once more be in familiar territory. It won’t last. I plan to celebrate while I can by putting my own robe on. Getting out of these sticky pajamas would be nice too. “Could you turn around?” I ask, tacking on a sheepish, “Please?” when she doesn’t budge.
This Buffy doesn’t speak ‘sheepish.’ I could probably pound the concept of privacy into her head, but I have a pretty clear idea that that would be a ‘high stress, low value’ kind of job, especially considering where we’re headed and previous results concerning similar matters. We’ve already had the talk about personal space. She didn’t understand that either. Modesty’s bound to be lost on her. For me it’s very much a thing. It’s good that there’s more than one way to skin a Willow. I put my robe over my shoulders, turn away and shed my pajamas. It’s a difficult, precarious task, but I manage to get not-so naked without showing any of my goodies off.
There’s one benefit to this ordeal: I’m no longer tired.
I gather our shower bags and towels, take her hand and lead her from our room. The showers aren’t that far, a little less than the length of the corridor. I don’t have that long to stew, but each step amplifies the sense of dread inside of me. By the time we push through the door, I’m a nervous wreck.
Maybe I’ll be able to leave her to shower on her own.
That ludicrous thought is what allows me to move into the first stall. I know better than to think I can trust her that much, but I’ve clung to less. I hang up her towels and turn on the shower without drenching myself, much.
While I’m setting out the things she needs, she slips past me straight into the spray with her robe on. She’s still sneaky and definitely not trustworthy. The change in the pitch of the water hitting the tiles is the only thing that alerts me to her actions. I grab her and drag her back. “Not yet,” I say, not quite scolding her. When she shakes like a dog, slapping me with her hair and pelting me with cold water, I know my fate is sealed. I’m going to have to see the whole thing through.
Water drips from her chin as I guide her to sit on the bench I’m using to stage things. The stunned expression that has yet to wear off her face strips away all of her sexiness, leaving her just plain cute. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, but I feel myself smile. All of that fades when she starts trying to take off her robe. I can hardly blame her. It is wet and the water is cold, but—
I’m about to be exposed to more of Buffy than I care for again and there’s nothing I can do about it except ignore her, which is generally a bad idea. She solves the mystery of the simple slipknot that’s holding her robe closed and stands up. It hits the floor as I finish getting out her things. Careful to keep my distance, I heft her now soaked robe from the wet floor. I have to slip past her to hang it up. While I’m at it, I hang my towels too, owning up to the whole ‘sealed fate’ aspect of this endeavor.
She’s beating a shampoo bottle against the bench when I turn around. Her hair’s wet and plastered to her chest. One of her erect nipples peeks through the strands. I ignore that along with the wonderful ‘jigglely’ thing that boobies do when you shake them. I’m afraid she’ll break the bottle open, so I say, “No,” as I make a grab for it. I manage to get it away from her without much trouble.
This might be a mistake, but I show her how to open the bottle by rocking the simple valve at the top of the cap. She seems delighted. While she’s busy listening to the faint clicking sounds the cap makes, I go to adjust the water temperature. Her scalding herself would be infinitely worse. Sneaking past the spray in my robe without getting wet is again something of a challenge, one that I don’t exactly rise to. I’m not quite soaked to the bone when I finish. Give it time.
And she’s figured out that there’s something inside the bottle. She smells the shampoo, gleefully announcing that it’s ‘pretty.’ Her fingers are in her mouth before I can stop her. I barely manage to squeak, “No.” The screwed up look on her face is cute. I grin as she splutters. It’s probably mean, but I can’t help myself. Then she bolts past me into the shower nearly taking me off my feet. The shampoo bottle goes flying during her dash and my stumble. I hear it hit as I recover by grabbing the top of the metal stall wall. It takes me a second to realize that it must be outside of our stall.
I guess it’s safe enough to leave her. She is busy. She stands under the shower with her head turned up, filling her mouth, still sputtering and spitting out fountains of water.
As I go to retrieve the bottle, I remember something I haven’t thought of in years. Amusement of any sort wasn’t a nice reaction at all. I know exactly what that’s like. The one time I cursed as a child my mother took me into the bathroom and made me hold a bar of soap in my teeth. I have no idea how long it lasted. How long she lectured me on the rudeness of swearing. It felt like ages. The taste was awful and my mother was so mad it scared me. Drool and bubbles dripped from my chin. I haven’t cussed since. The word was ‘shit.’ I had no idea what it meant at the time. I now know it to be the name of the creek I’m currently careening down without a paddle or a rudder or a prayer.
The shampoo bottle is nowhere in sight. I end up noticing and following a trail of the white creamy stuff into another stall to find it. While I’m at it, I don’t want anyone to slip so I take some paper towels from the dispenser and clean the spill up. I guess we’re lucky it’s so late. I can just see Buffy braining someone with a shampoo bottle and knocking them out. If anyone could use something like that as an improvised cudgel, it’d be her. I laugh. I can’t help it.
When I return to our stall, she meets my eyes. A bubble hangs from her lower lip. It slides down her chin as she deems the experience, “Bad!”
I have to agree. “Yes, that was bad.” As I shut the door, I catch sight of her and really look. The next few minutes are unadulterated torture. I stare at her, willing my defective body to not do what it’s bent on doing. It’s wrong for her. It’s wrong for me. It’s wrong for Oz. I could hurt two people I dearly love in one fell swoop, again. Wouldn’t that be fun?
I wish the shower was still cold. It isn’t. Steam has already begun to thicken the air. Her hair hangs behind her now. She’s not just beautiful. The flowing water makes her lustrous. She’s whatever comes after gorgeous. Dazzling, maybe? But that doesn’t sound good enough. There’s gotta something better. I know there is. My heated, fuzzy brain just isn’t—
She studies me as I stand frozen. I can tell from her expression that in her own limited way, she’s trying to work my reaction out. Given how base my response is, she probably will. And if she’s able to carry that impression with her, everything between us will change. What I’m doing is actually dangerous. As if I didn’t know that.
I force movement from my unwilling legs. They’re as stubborn as my brain. The muscles just won’t work right. My feet weigh a ton. I want to turn and run. They’d probably work fine for that, but I have to make my way to her.
‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.’
I have the shampoo bottle in my hand. That’s where I usually start, but it occurs to me that this could be dangerous too, and not just for the obvious reasons. Soap in her eyes would be so much worse than in her mouth. Not only would it sting, but it might temporarily blind her. I have no doubt her reaction to that would be painful for me too. I have to make her understand before I can start. “I need you to close your eyes,” I say.
When she just blinks at me in return, I really begin to question whether this is wise. But I’m also determined and maybe a little bit dumb, so I show her what I mean. I open my eyes to find that my demonstration has had the same effect. I point at the bottle. “If this gets into your eyes,” I explain, moving my finger to the corner of my left eye, “it will burn.”
She blinks again and I realize that her expression has changed very little from when I entered the shower. The contours of her face are hard, almost chiseled. There could be another problem. My rabbit impression of just moments ago could’ve labeled me as prey. She might’ve read it that way. This isn’t going well. I do the only thing I can. I clarify my statement in a way that I have no doubt she’ll understand, “Like fire.”
The fact that she backs off is strangely satisfying. I tell her, “I’ll be okay. Just trust me. Close your eyes and don’t open them until I tell you it’s safe.” I’m asking a lot. I know. I hold my hand out and she looks at it suspiciously. But when she eventually takes it, it feels like another small, satisfying victory.
As I gently tug, leading her from the spray, she echoes me, “Trust Willow.” The way she breaks my name up into two distinct syllables like it’s difficult for her to say is a splash of icy water. Whatever she might be now, she is clearly incapacitated. Even if she threw me against the wall and forced herself on me, I’d have to resist. Anything else wouldn’t be right. She isn’t herself.
I try not to imagine how that would be as I guide her to turn away from me. Naughty thoughts are bad. In fact, they’re even arguably evil. Touching her would be similar to touching a child. She’s not a child, but in a way she is. It’s ethically similar. That line of reasoning clinches it for me. I just have to jump through the mental hoops involved in viewing her as a child while not treating her like one. That won’t be easy, but it’ll be easier than what I have been doing.
“Shut your eyes.” I lean around her to make sure she does what I ask, then take my sleeve and pat her face dry to keep the suds from running down her forehead. “Don’t open them,” I caution her as I pour a dollop of the shampoo into my hand. The fact that she trusts me so much even now is another thing that cements my resolve.
This isn’t so bad. I think I can probably show her how to wash her own body by doing her back and she can take it from there. Her head lolls back as I massage her scalp, making me curious. I sneak another peek at her face. As I suspect, she wears a slight grin. She’s enjoying this. Somewhere inside she might even be purring. I concentrate on working the lather through her hair, while trying to make the experience as pleasant as possible.
As I finish up, turn her around and guide her back under the spray, I remind her, “Don’t open your eyes.” My immunization is working perfectly. I look at her face and nothing else. She’s still beautiful, but I know that, regardless of her physical state, she is just as inaccessible as ever. That’s reality. Entertaining any other ideas is dumb. Reacting at all is—
I try to find anything else to think besides ‘pathetic,’ but that’s ultimately what sticks. While I’m enjoying the wallow time that appraisal affords me, I get thoroughly drenched helping her rinse her hair. The situation is a total loss for me. I get the sea sponge which is the only really absorbent thing in her shower bag, and use it to blot around her eyes before I tell her she can open them.
She blinks her eyes open, makes a face and rubs them with the backs of her hands. It takes her a moment to focus on me. When she does, I gesture for her to come. The signal for turnaround is less effective. She twirls until I stop her by grabbing her upper arm. I want to laugh again, but I hold it in. I bet this weird emotional rollercoaster I’m on isn’t good for her either. I need to just focus on the work. I wonder how patient she’s feeling.
That’s a silly question. She wants to play. That’s how this Buffy is. I give her the sponge. It’s a fairly safe toy as they go. Much safer than a shampoo bottle. I doubt she’d be able to club anyone unconscious with a sponge.
My goal here is as absurd as everything else about this evening. I’m deluded enough to think that I might be able to condition her hair and comb it out. There’s a wide toothed comb in her bag that’s probably for just that purpose. I’m going to try. Her hair’s a mess. It’ll save her so much time in the morning. If she gets too fidgety, we’ll move on.
She’ll get cold if she stands there. I place my hand between her shoulder blades and push. She takes a step forward into the spray and I get to work. Thankfully, it doesn’t take much to amuse her. She lets the sponge fill with water and squeezes it out. Her head tilts when the water hits the tile with a clap. She doesn’t tilt her head the next time because I’ve positioned it where I want it. I’m surprised she takes those cues. And a little bit grateful.
Water hits the tile with that same loud clap at regular intervals as I section off parts and move from the bottom up, gently working the tangles from her hair.
Once when I was very little my mother told me that if I didn’t let her brush my hair, a bird would build a nest in it. I hated having my hair brushed. She was always too busy to spend much time on it or me, so it always hurt. And I always felt guilty for interrupting her work. I believed her. I thought that having baby birds live in my hair would be wonderful. I stood under a tree and waited. My mom moved on to the ‘rat’s nest’ comparison after that. In retrospect, I can hardly blame her for trying another analogy. She hates rats.
I don’t know why I keep thinking about her. Maybe I should call tomorrow. We haven’t spoken since before school started.
That’s not true. Not the calling part, the ‘why.’ I know exactly why. It’s because of this—the way I’m caring for Buffy. It’s the way she’s acting too. She’s so patient, which is both amazing and good. I’m making impressive headway. And she seems to be enjoying it. I suppose the contact is nice. It’s soothing enough—the soft, warm, slippery feel of her hair and skin. I haven’t really been touching her, but I’m constantly in contact with her. But that’s not the point. My point is, regardless our relationship, this is undeniably maternal.
Or maybe just familial? I still don’t want to think of her as childish. That hasn’t gotten any fairer with time.
Her hair’s done. It didn’t take that long at all. She turns to look when I take away the sponge. I pour soap into it and squeeze it to make suds. Her expression changes and I know I’m in trouble. Oh boy. Here we go—
“Foamy,” she says, sounding more than a little lusty. Then like clockwork, comes the demand, “Want beer!” So predictable. So loud. So much for not waking the neighbors.
I snap, “No,” responding to her pout with an explanation, “Not tonight. I’m tired.” Or was that an excuse? Either way it almost works. Her expression softens. A promise pushes her over the edge. “We’ll get beer tomorrow if you still want some.”
“Beer tomorrow?” The word ‘tomorrow’ becomes three under her clumsy tongue. ‘To. Mar. Oh.’
Nodding my assent, I assure her that we have a deal. “After we sleep, I promise.” She’s happy again, especially after I pass her test. And I am too. I know she won’t want beer at all tomorrow. Hopefully ever again.
I twirl my finger in the air. This time she just turns away. She’s learning. I move her hair and wash her back, then pass the sponge off when I’m done. “Your turn,” I say. I want to watch her wash her face. I make that clear by pointing to my chin and remind her, “Don’t get any in your eyes.”
She understands me, which I guess is a minor miracle considering. What she does is crude. A little more scrubby than normal I’m sure, but it works. So scrubby that she huffs to clear the bubbles that have gone up her nose. She steps back under the spray and lets the water flow over her face for a long time before she steps forward and wipes her eyes with her free hand.
The whole thing is so cute that she opens her eyes to see me smiling. She passed my test too, so I collect my things and try to leave. I don’t make it the two steps to the door before she says, “No.” Her hand closes around my wrist. I wriggle, but she isn’t letting go. “Willow clean.”
That’s an order, not a request. I try to explain, “I’m going to get clean. I’ll just be in the next stall.”
She isn’t having any of it. The sponge falls on the floor and she starts to work on the belt of my robe. When I try to step away, she says, “No,” again and refuses to release me.
One more try. “You haven’t finished. Let me go. I promise I’ll be done by the time you are.”
Nothing. No reaction. Not a glance. Not a twitch. She just fusses with the belt of my robe. If she’d only pulled on the short end in the first place, it would’ve come free, but she pulled on the loop first and now there’s a knot. When I tried to get away, the knot hardened. She’ll eventually get it or get so frustrated that I’ll need a new robe. One of those two things will happen. Of that much I’m sure. Or maybe…
I look down. She picks at the knot with her nails for a moment. That isn’t working, so she slips her hands between the belt and me and pulls. The knot is now a rock.
I’ve changed my mind. I don’t really want to buy a new robe, so I close my hand over the knot. I’d wiggle my nose if I thought she’d still enjoy the reference. She doesn’t remember. To her the TV is a box with tiny people inside it. Giles laughed about that. I’m still not sure I see the funny.
When I release my hand and the belt falls free, I get a different kind of appreciation. It’s a little more like adoration. She looks astounded. I don’t think I’ve ever astounded Buffy before. Her more sophisticated self takes the seemingly impossible things I do for granted.
Right now I’m just happy she doesn’t fall prostrate at my feet. That’d be awkward. As it is, several, many moments pass before she’s able to meet my eyes. I feel better when she does. I’ve accomplished something amazing. I’ve gone from being the helpless girl she rescued from the fire to someone worthy of awe.
She’s hesitant to touch me. Our roles have reversed. I’m in control for the first time tonight. Maybe for the first time ever. I should be the one who’s in awe.
My robe hasn’t fallen open. She takes the outer fold of cloth between the tips of her index finger and thumb, poised to snatch her hand away should I tell her ‘no.’
I don’t. This must be terribly important to her if she’s willing to reach out to me right now when she’s so shaken. I don’t have it in me to be that mean to her. “It’s okay,” I say. Our watchword has circled back into focus. This time for an entirely different reason.
But still the same reason.
I turn as she slips my robe off to make it easier on her. The progression is simple enough for her to follow. I expect her to drop my robe once she has it, but she takes it and hangs it over her own. We’re running out of hooks.
She doesn’t touch me, but through gesture she ushers me into the shower. I close my eyes. The water feels wonderful. I’ve been ignoring the tacky chill for long enough my skin’s cold to the touch. I actually get a little lost in it. She calls me back with her special, broken version of my name. The shampoo bottle is in her hand. I doubt she wants to brain me, so I guess it’s the other thing.
She has the sponge in her other hand. I close my eyes, anticipating the problem long before she does. “Foamy,” she says, this time with disgust. The sponge falls with a splat and she mops my forehead with her hand. She’s becoming frustrated.
I interrupt to tell her, “It’s okay.” Without opening my eyes, I stoop down and pat around until I find the sponge, then I rinse it. Once I’ve let it fill and squeezed the water from it five times, I hand it to her still compressed and she dabs my forehead again.
“Don’t open,” she says. In her own clumsy way she’s trying to imitate what I did to her. Thing is, she isn’t clumsy at all. It’s just the process itself that’s hard for her. If she understood why I did what I did and was able to deem that part unnecessary, this would be absolutely fluid. I know that she still has a refined sense of herself, her abilities, and how powerful she can be because she knocked that poophead Parker out without killing him. There wasn’t even any blood. She knew just how hard to hit him without leaving any lasting damage. He’ll have a goose egg in the morning, but that’s all.
And that might’ve been the best thing ever.
I keep my eyes shut. She uses my wrist to position me where she wants me. She’s exceedingly gentle. Maybe more gentle than I was. As she begins to lather my hair, something occurs to me. She might view this as a communal activity. That certainly fits what I know about early hominid behavior.
Suddenly all of this—everything that’s happened—takes an unexpected turn in my mind and becomes an ethological study. I’m living among the apes, though it’s impossible for me to view Buffy that way for long, especially with the way she’s touching me. Her hands are just too soft. My eyes are closed, so I manage to suspend my disbelief long enough for the thought to fully form. I doubt Jane Goodall was able to cling to too many social taboos either.
This is more an anthropological study, which is good, because the killing and the cannibalism would take the fun right out of anything.
We go through the pantomime I showed her with almost mechanical precision. I even twirl when she gestures for me to turn around. But I don’t do it for the same reason. I want to make her laugh and she does. I’ve found a way to play with her. It’s so satisfying that I bask in my accomplishment.
My basking skids to a jarring halt when she reaches my lower back and doesn’t stop. There may’ve even been a crash. I know there’s a twitch. My lower back spasms as she works the sponge into my more tender nooks and crannies.
The badness lasts for a few seconds. I want to tell her that it’s bad, but I don’t get a chance before the shock wrings a squeak out of me. That’s effectively communicative, if you speak ‘humiliated Willow,’ otherwise it’s useless.
Well, I can’t exactly tell her that it’s bad now. She’s washing my calves. That’s fine. Her hand moves from the outside of my hip down my thigh. I didn’t think I used my hand. She is. That’s bad in a way, but not a way I can hope to explain. And I guess now that I really think about it, I did too. I followed the sponge with my free hand, wiping the suds away.
The way she’s going at it I half expect her to whistle a jaunty tune, but I doubt she has the ability, considering her speech. I would, but the inside of my mouth is the consistency of baked cardboard. My tongue is even stuck to the roof.
As I take advantage of the plentiful water source to fix that, proving that I’m not an absolute dummy, she reaches my feet. I lift them one at a time to let her clean the bottoms. Her attention to detail is scrupulous. I have to brace myself against the wall because she takes the time to wash between each of my toes. I hang my head so I can breathe as the water flows over my head.
I was right about the shower. It’s loosened the congestion in my chest. I’m breathing freer.
I was wrong about something else, or I might’ve been. I wonder if she felt slighted when I stopped. If so, no wonder she wouldn’t let me leave. Because of what it is—the act—the actual slight—it’s hard for me to imagine, but I probably hurt her feelings. I need to tolerate this no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.
No. I need to tolerate it to a point because she might remember. Hopefully, she’ll just carry away impressions. That’d be the best case scenario. It’d strengthen what we have. And frankly, we could use a little strengthening.
Since when does magic ever follow the best case scenario? It usually ends up as messy as possible. The messiest scenario would be if she remembers everything. I have to draw some lines because anything else will just embarrass her and drive her further away.
I know what I’m doing when I turn around. I’ve made it through her washing my feet without slipping and busting my backside. That’s another triumph. I’m doing okay. But she’s quicker than me. She’s washed my breasts before I can tell her they’re a bad thing to touch. Good thing that they’re little more than fleshy lumps to her. To me they’re one of the very best ways to make me—
Not thinking about that now. Child in the room.
She works her way from there down my right arm. Something unexpected happens when she reaches my hand. She lingers to do the same thing she did to my feet and her touch is surprisingly sensual, the way she kneads my palm, the feel of the sponge passing between my fingers.
This child is killing me! But what can I do? I tighten my jaw. My teeth don’t break. That much is good. The other side is no better. I grimace and bear it. Watching would be worse. This whole experience qualifies that way, so my eyelids are clamped as tightly as my teeth.
Once I have my hands back, I cup the right one over my crotch and tell her, “No,” I even add a, “Bad,” for good measure. My jaws ache with the exertion.
She meets my eyes. Her confusion is plain. I try to look stern, but I probably look silly. Red faced and strained. Thing is, I don’t think she has any real sense of intimacy in her current form. And while that might be a blessing—a tiny reprieve from the stinky Parker fiasco—it won’t last. I have to head her off before she reaches this particular ‘pass.’ Things may never be the same between us if I don’t.
She listens and the remainder of my trial goes quickly enough. Before I know it she’s handing the sponge off.
If I’m really true to her, that’s exactly what this is. I have to. She’ll feel I don’t care about her as much if I don’t. Having her carry that impression away from this would be heartbreaking.
My turn is a nightmare. I follow all of the steps exactly the way she designed them. The big differences are that I can’t close my eyes and she doesn’t close hers. When I reach her front, she watches my trembling hands like a hawk. She even asks, “Willow okay?”
It’s a boldfaced lie, but I tell her, “I’m fine.” She doesn’t believe that any more than I do, so we go through a clumsy, shorthand version of ‘you sure?’ and all that follows. It’s like a really tedious game of verbal ping pong, but at least it passes the time.
Agonizing moments dwindle away and I try not to do anything I’ll regret. The trouble is, I regret everything I do. By the time I finish, I’m exhausted mentally, physically and morally. It takes all the oomph I can muster just to shut the shower off.
She pats me dry, or dryish, and wraps me in a towel. I try not to flinch, though I can hardly stand for her to touch the raw bundle of nerves that is me. I do the same for her, sort of, and show her how to put her hair up. I wanted to blow dry it, but I just can’t.
We make it back to our room and I dress in some fresh jammies. I have no idea what she does. There aren’t any crashes so…
My head barely hits the pillow before I’m out.