He walks into the room without knocking, but loudly, shutting the door firmly behind him, making his footsteps heavy and rocking against the carpeted floor so she'll hear him. She does. She doesn't look up.
The part of her cheek he can see is shiny and clean, her red hair--he thanks God for that color, now--still wet; Buffy mentioned before he went up that she'd had to undress Willow and set her in the shower because she hadn't bathed in days. Not that Willow would have struggled. She never struggled. She rarely moved anymore. She seemed barely alive.
Like a once-favorite, newly discarded rag doll, Xander thinks as he watches her, unmoving, curled up under the covers of her bed.
"Willow." He says her name softly, a breath of air made word by the motion of his lips. He says it again, waiting for her to respond. She remains still and quiet, but he can feel she's awake, can feel that she's waiting for... something. For him to leave, so she can be alone with her grief and guilt.
Or for him to stay.
Hoping desperately that it's the latter, he sits down on the edge of the mattress, feeling it sink slightly beneath his weight. Willow finally shifts. Not away from him, not closer, but... Movement. Good.
But the bad outweighs the good; and he carefully runs words, prayers, lectures alternating with plea bargains through his head, trying to find the right thing to say. He comes up with nothing, at first. His mind is blanked of all comfort; he recognizes her pain and it cuts to the quick of him, deep inside, to that part of him that's always belonged to her.
He hasn't seen her in nearly three days.
After she had cried in his arms, after her hair had become red again, after her magic had been spent, her eyes dry of all tears and steeped in shadows so deep it scared him, she had quietly apologized and pulled herself away. Instead of the wrenching pain that had gripped her only moments before, there was a sort of... nothingness. A bleak, hopeless, weary expression on her
face. He couldn't decide then whether or not that was better than the rage that had nearly killed them all.
He had tried to gather her close again--Jesus, how much he'd wanted to hold her!--but she had stiffened and finally he had dropped his arms to his sides, walking silently beside her to Buffy's house, where they had met up with everyone.
There were no recriminations. Not from Buffy, or Giles, or even Dawn. No one had blamed her for the cutting, cruel things she'd said and done. But if anything, their understanding, their loyalty, had made things worse.
Well, maybe not worse. But definitely not better.
She had apologized again to the group at large, in the same quiet, blank voice as before, and allowed them to hug her for a moment before pulling away, perhaps sensing their need to reaffirm that she was really Willow again, that she was okay, that they all would be fine.
Xander wasn't convinced this was true anymore.
After the group hug--very Sweet Valley High, despite all of the horror surrounding the previous days--Willow had stated that she needed to be left alone for a while, still apologetic, but firmly. There was something otherworldly in her eyes; not supernatural, but faint and tired and painful to look at.
He had tried to follow her up the stairs, walk her to her room, hoping... Hoping perhaps that he could hold her again while she cried, because he had known deep down how much she needed him. But she had laid her hand on his arm--a light, staying touch, not a warning, but a plea.
He had stayed away.
But when Buffy called him this morning, he could stay away no longer.
She ate, Buffy told him over the phone, probably because she didn't have the energy to argue. Except after three or four swallows, she was done... She didn't have the energy to keep herself alive, either. She didn't speak, Buffy continued. Not ever. Not since the night they had come home. Buffy had tried to talk to her, with no results. "She needs you," Buffy said, and
so he came.
Now he touches her shoulder. Her intake of breath is only slightly more audible; his touch was a surprise, but not enough of one to make her expend some of her nonexistent energy.
"Come back to me, Willow," he says, and means it more than anything he's ever said in his life. Even more than what he'd said to her on the mountain that day.
A sigh escapes her lips, resigned. That's more than he expected, but a moment later he hears her whisper, "I don't know how," and his heart thuds painfully inside of his chest.
He wants to take this away from her, this sadness, this pain, this awesome responsibility. He wants to tell her that it was okay, what she did, and that everything will be all right.
But he refuses to lie.
Instead, he's quiet for a moment and then he stretches out on the bed, spooning her from behind, slipping his arms under the covers and around her waist. She allows him to pull her back so that she's resting against his chest, and her damp hair brushes against his cheek, smelling like orange blossoms. His knees fit into the crook of hers, and she allows this too.
Then he goes still; he doesn't want to push his luck.
Finally comfortable with her in his arms again, finally able to think straight--something that had been impossible for the previous several days away from her--he says softly, "I'll help you."
"You would," she acknowledges in that too-quiet voice of hers. "If you knew how." There's a long silence, as he's trying to think up a way to respond, but she continues softly, saying, "You don't."
"I could learn," he corrects, his voice a gentle plea for instruction on how to take care of her best. He never needed instruction on how to take care of her before, but he does now, and although that hurts him too, he's willing to obey any suggestion of hers.
Willow turns suddenly in his arms, struggling slightly as the blanket wraps tighter around her. After a moment the blanket is under control and she is facing him, and she is looking into his eyes in a way that scares him, worries him, makes him wonder. Her look is searching; she is searching for a way to teach him, like he asked.
But then she doesn't say anything, the non-words lingering tensely in the air, the nothingness trembling above and around them, and she presses her face into his chest, rubbing her cheek against the soft cotton of his T-shirt. He's warm, she realizes with surprise, because she'd thought that all of the warmth had fled from her life forever.
But as the confusing heat from him seeps through the blanket and his T-shirt into her, she thinks, maybe not all the warmth.
She's surprised by that thought too.
Xander sucks in his breath at the startlingly sensual pleasure of her cheek against his chest and tells him that this feeling isn't what he's come here for. This feeling is too earthy, too sexual, and far too soon. She doesn't need this right now, he knows, and he shifts his lower body away from hers slightly to keep her from feeling the arousal in his groin.
But then she looks up at him, a bewildered look chasing away some of the shadows in her gaze, as if she's realizing that their embrace is not just a friend's embrace--no, it could be a lover's embrace, too--but she doesn't pull away. She just looks at him, waiting, like she was waiting before.
His breath catches. Knowing that he shouldn't, knowing that it's the exact wrong thing to do, his lowers his head and kisses her gently, brushing his mouth over hers, once, twice.
These kisses are okay, he realizes, because even though his erection isn't fading, he doesn't feel the urge to do more yet. These kisses are okay, and he touches her mouth lightly again. These kisses are comfort.
Willow sniffles softly at the unexpected pleasure, at the warmth that had been hiding from her. Her hands sneak up to rest against the tightened muscles of his arms. He's holding her firmly, not hurting her, but it doesn't feel as though he's ever going to let her go. That's nice too.
His mouth presses against hers steadily after a moment, harder but still not hard, and the kiss lingers. He takes his time with it, feeling her respond, but still it's only comfort. One best friend holding another, and it's all right. It's even good, for the moment.
Neither of them realize the exact moment when the kiss changes, but soon it does, and as her tongue sinks into his mouth, sweeping, she rolls so that her upper body covers his. He can feel her tight nipples against his chest, and shifts is body to rub against her. She starts, and makes a soft sound of surprise, and continues kissing him.
In minutes that seem to last for days, they become frantic. Their mouths, wet, sliding over each others feverishly. His hand cups her breast and kneads it, and she leans into the sensation, rocking against it.
Something pierces the surface of Xander's mind; a faint warning, a sense of foreboding, of wrong, even in the rightness of all of it. He releases her breast and brings his hands up to cup her face, pulling her mouth away from his so that he can gain some space and look at her. Her mouth is slick, a flushed pink.
"Willow." He says her name urgently, trying to fight the fog that's wrapped around him and as her hands slide over his zipper, rubbing at his erection through his suddenly too-tight jeans, he almost loses his train of thought because it feels so good. *She* feels so good.
They would feel so good together.
But one last sliver of reason grasps him from the edge of insanity, pulling him back from the precipice, even though her hand is still on him, still wrestling, almost frenzied, with his zipper, trying to tug it down, starting to delve her little hand inside.
His fingers wrap around her wrist at the last second--or maybe the second after the last second, because for an instant he can feel the heat of her fingertips move over the length of him, and he wonders how her hands got hot, when they were so cold only moments again. She pauses, panting, staring at her hand in his grip and his undone fly as if she could telekinetically touch
him, and he almost--oh, god, the temptation is so great--lets her hand go. But he doesn't.
Finally, she looks up at him, her eyes cloudy with distraction, and licks her lips. "What?" she asks faintly.
He feels a surge of tenderness for her, not unlike the passion from moments before, but somehow vastly different at the same time. "Who am I?" he asks, knowing with a certain tightness in his throat what's coming.
"You're..." She stops. Blinks. Nods. "You're Xander."
The tightness doesn't ease, but his mouth quirks, and he loves her so much in that moment, feels so much for her, sadness, affection, friendship, passion, sympathy, and even a sort of pity. It enables him to give her a strange sort of sad smile. He firmly moves her hand up his body, laying it to rest flat on his chest, over his heart, and then places his hand over hers.
"It's not me you're looking for," he tells her, his throat aching.
"Xander..." Her voice fades as his fingers skim over her cheek in a light
"It's not even Tara," he says then, and is sorry when she flinches, but knows he can't take back the words. He pushes back the hair from her face, tucking it behind her ears so that he can see her eyes more clearly, and she stays still, watching him.
"Who is it?" she asks at length in a tight little voice.
His eyebrows draw together, but he smiles painfully, wanting to kiss her again and knowing that he can't. "It's you."
For a minute, she seems to think this over. She's silent, still plastered over his chest, and the skin on her cheek and behind her ear is soft, so soft, so Xander continues to tuck her hair behind her ear even though none of it is falling in her eyes anymore.
"I don't know how," she tells him again. "I just don't know how, Xander. I'm... Gone."
"You got a little lost is all," he murmurs, still tucking, "But I'll find you. I'll always know where you are. I'll always find you."
Willow flinches again at his words, and he wonders about it, but slowly her muscles relax and she lowers her head down to bury her face against his neck. Her nose is cold, shocking him a little, but her breath is warm and sure even if it's slightly ragged, so it's okay. He wraps his arms around her, settling his hands high on her back, and she melts against him. It feels good, to hold her like this, but this time he's the one who's waiting for what come next.
It starts small but grows rapidly; a tiny shiver under his palm becomes a tremor that makes her arms shake and then a full-bodied shudder, like she's cold, like she's freezing, and he wants to give her all of his warmth, but he knows that she has to make it out of the cold on her own.
Her teeth are chattering close to his ear and he hugs her tighter and she snuggles close, closer, as close as she can get, seeking help that he simply can't give, because the darkness is her own darkness. He would light a match if he could.
His hand strokes her back, the side of her face, feeling her hot tears against his neck as her hair becomes dry. Later--how much, he doesn't know--he feels her shudders begin to slow, turning back into tremors and then, finally, into the occasional shiver that means she's maybe not so cold anymore. Or that she's just decided not to live.
Xander prays for the former.
Her head raises and for the first time since Tara was killed, she smiles at him. It's a shaky, uncertain smile, but genuine all the same. A choked laugh--or possibly a sob, he's not sure--escapes his throat, and he presses her head back down, her cheek to his now-wet throat, because he loves the contact. Because now he knows for sure that it's going to be all right.
It's going to take time, but it's going to be all right.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, her breath a warm puff of air on his skin. "I'm so sorry."
"You don't have to be sorry, Will," he whispers back. "Not about this."
"I am, though." She lifts her head up and touches her forehead to his lightly, meeting his eyes. Xander notices that her lashes are still damp from her storm of emotion, but that her eyes are a bright green--another color that looks good on her.
He was never a fan of black, anyway.
"Why?" he asks, touching her cheek with one finger.
"Because that's not what friends are for," she says simply, almost wryly.
Xander chuckles. "That's *exactly* what friends are for," he disagrees, then pauses. For the first time, he's a little uncomfortable, looking for the right way to form his thoughts. "That's what *I'm* for. It's not that I didn't want..."
"I know," she interrupts. "I know."
"But not like that."
"I know that too." She leans down and kisses him again, a softer, warmer kiss, a kiss with a slow heat that isn't forced or imagined this time. It tastes salty from her tears and his hands flex lightly on her waist before she pulls away. "I never meant for..."
"I said it's okay," he reminds her quietly. "No apologies necessary."
"I love you, Xander," she sighs.
"God, I love you too, Willow."
Her forehead rests against his again and she closes her eyes wearily. "It hurts a lot."
"I can't even imagine what you're going through," he tells her honestly. "I loved her too, but... I can't even imagine. If I can hurt like this when she loved me the way she did, I don't know how much you're hurting because she loved you so much more than that. So much more."
"If it were Anya," Willow starts.
"No," he says flatly. "I don't want to think about that. I can't." The corner of his mouth turns up. "So it's a pretty good example." He brushes her hair back so he can touch it again. "A better one might be if it were you."
"Yes," she agrees. "Or you."
He's silent for a moment, and then nods his concession to her logic. The mattress dips and seems to sway slightly as he rolls to his side, pinning her underneath him. He looks down at her, flushed, warm, pink and on the surface she' so tempting he has to resist the impulse to move against her, touch her, kiss her again while thrusting his hands through her hair. But there is still pain in her eyes, and an awful confusion that tells him that she doesn't know what to do now, but her gaze is also trusting, and he feels fiercely glad for that. The moment passes.
"So..." Willow lets the word trail off into nothing, into the quiet, because she knows that soon Xander will help, however he can. His next words are important, and she will let them help her.
His voice is low, tender, and he brushes the corner of her mouth with another kiss, a light one this time, a friendship kiss. "So now we get up. Now *you* get up," he emphasizes softly. "You get up out of the bed, open the door to the room and go downstairs to be with everyone who loves you. Not any farther, if you don't want. Not today. Just downstairs. And you hold
my hand, if you need to."
She darts an almost fearful glance at the door. He feels the chills creeping through her body as his suggestion goes through her mind, but she doesn't pull out from under him. When she looks back up into his face, her muscles relax and although her voice quavers slightly, she says, "Okay."
Xander lifts up and pulls his weight off of her and for a moment is bereft at the loss of her body heat, her soft curves, being so close. But he moves away anyway, and stands, and watches her as she struggles out from under the heavy comforter. When she's ready, she rakes one hand through her hair, and walks to the door.
Her hand reaches for the knob, touches it, and she hesitates. "Xander?"
He goes to her side. "What is it?"
"I think I do need to hold your hand."
He smiles automatically, glad to be able to give her something more, and doesn't quite understand why it feels almost like his heart his breaking.
"Anytime, Willow," he tells her, and stretches out his hand.
She takes it. She opens the door.