What If

‘What if a lion walked in the room and bit Miss Allison on the butt?’ ‘It’d break a tooth, Xander, don’t be mean!’, ‘What if I just started walking down the road, Will? Never turned around, never came back? D’you think anyone would notice?’ ‘I would, Xander. I’d miss you.’ ‘What if no one likes me in my class, Xander?’ ‘Dummy; I’m in your class...’

Xander squinted up into a blue, English sky, decorated with impeccably fluffy, white clouds. “They look like the bits of cotton wool we used to stick on pictures as kids, don’t they? I remember crying – no, not crying, because even at five I was the manly type – when I found out you couldn’t sit on clouds like chairs or cushions.”

“You don’t have to bring in a kindergarten memory a day to keep the evil Willow away,” Willow said, sounding tired. “Kennedy’s gone off with another Slayer; I’m dealing.”

“I wasn’t!” Xander protested. “Ulterior motives, nil, innocent remarks, one.” He rolled onto his stomach and looked at Willow. “I thought you, me, walk in the woods, would be relaxing, but you’ve gotten more wound up with every step. Want to go back to the hotel? Giles promised there’d be cream tea, with jelly and scones and I’m getting to like that.”

“They call it jam,” Willow said, tucking her hair behind her ear and carrying on painstakingly braiding long blades of grass together for no reason that Xander could see. “And, no, or this holiday’s going to end with me stark naked ‘cos none of my clothes fit me any more. And as they’re all still pretty new, I really don’t want that to happen.”

“Ooh, naked Willow,” Xander said automatically. “I’m all in...favour...of...God, Willow, why don’t you stop me when I say stuff like that?”

That got the most natural giggle he’d heard from her in months. “Because it’s fun to see you squirm?”

“Hmm. Not what I’d call an adequate reason, but I’m feeling too sleepy to argue. Giles kept me up until two going over the paperwork I kinda hoped he’d left in London. Man doesn’t know when to quit working.”

Willow abandoned the braid and threw an acorn at him that bounced off his shoulder. “Says the man who’s been working weekends since March. Face it, Xander, you two make a perfect pair – except, not in a pair-y way, because, no, that wouldn’t work, and it’d be kinda weird, and now I should shut up, huh?”

“You really should,” Xander agreed, already planning how to make Giles polish his glasses at double speed by telling him what Willow had said, with suitable additions. That’d teach him to delegate seating plans for the upcoming Watchers’ convention to people who’d only agreed to take on the job of being his helper in a strictly temporary way. Six months ago.

They stood without discussion and drifted towards the path. That happened a lot, Xander realised; Willow wasn’t in his head – that had hurt, though he’d never told her so, but they’d been friends for too long to need words sometimes. They both had the gift of the babble, but that came in handy more when they were nervous, and he couldn’t imagine feeling nervous around Willow, no matter what her state of mind.

Not that it was a good one right now...Kennedy going was less the cause than a symptom; Willow had driven her away with a score of silences when there should’ve been words, space between them when Kennedy had wanted smoochies...and yeah, much babbling, which was enough to make Xander stop worrying about what to get Kennedy for her birthday, because she wasn’t going to be around that long.

The trees gave way to the hotel grounds and Xander nodded at an ice cream van. “Remember when I drove one of those? One of my childhood dream jobs, and I discovered that, yes, you can get sick of cold, creamy goodness, and there went another illusion.”

“Let’s get some now,” Willow said, giving him a smile that was all dimples and no depth. “Pretend you still like it.”

“Oh, I do!” he said. “My tongue thawed out weeks ago; I’m ready to go back in.”

Handing over what he’d probably have thought of as an outrageous amount of money if it’d been in dollars and cents, Xander turned to Willow and presented her with a cone topped with white, swirled ice cream. “My lady.” He bowed low and straightened up fast enough to catch a wistful look on her face. “What’s up?” One bite had melted in his mouth before she replied.

“Just thinking...Xander, come over here.”

She led the way to a fence, that was keeping in some lambs Xander strongly suspected were destined for the menu, and climbed on it. He stood in front of her and gave her a puzzled smile.

“You’re being cryptic, Will. We’ve spoken about this before. I confuse easily, remember?”

“Doesn’t bring back any memories?” she asked.

Of  what? Xander shrugged and then watched as Willow sighed and brought her cone up high enough that a blob ended up on her nose.

“Oh, now, yes, this is familiar....second grade field trip to the zoo! You tripped and said you were a giraffe and couldn’t get back up and...no, it wasn’t that...”

“The night Buffy came back from summer vacation after killing the Master. We’d been playing ‘lines from the movies’ and you were going to kiss me when that vampire attacked.”

It came out in such a rush of words that Xander flinched. “I remember,” he said slowly. “But I wasn’t going to kiss you, Willow. I mean, yes, I was, but then I wasn’t. I couldn’t...”

“Oh, yes,” Willow said, her voice as cool and empty as his mouth. “I wasn’t with Oz then, so you weren’t interested.”

The instinctive urge to argue or get offended died away in the realisation that she was right. “I was a jerk, wasn’t I? Why do you put up with me, Will? All those years...”

“You’re not a jerk now,” she said, wiping her nose clean with a grimace at the mess it left on her fingers. “And I’ve always been good at waiting.”

“What if -?” he began, knowing it was all he needed to say because he could feel her listening so intently she could hear his thoughts, but somehow it didn’t hurt anymore.

‘What if I’d kissed you that night?’ ‘We’ll never know. It doesn’t matter.’ ‘What if you’d stayed with me, not gone back to Oz?’ ‘I didn’t, did I?’ ‘What if I kissed you now, Willow?’ ‘Try it and see, Xander...’

You could cram a lot of thought into three seconds...which was as long as it took him to decorate Willow’s nose, lick it clean and capture her lips in a kiss.

He’d forgotten how she tasted, how her lips parted with an eager shyness, how warm her hands were when they crept around his neck. He remembered all those five-year old memories when he kissed cool, closed lips, stiff beneath his own and he began to panic - then he felt her relax and he was kissing Willow again and the sun was hot against his head and the sky was full of cotton wool clouds.

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