DISCLAIMER: Another day, another…they don’t pay me anything at all. I just do this to amuse myself and you. That’s what allows me and mine to slip under the radar while playing with characters created by those more fortunate than us.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Special thanks to Howard Russell for all of the lovely commas.
ARCHIVING: A master list of my fiction can be found here. Please do not archive or distribute without my permission.
Crossing the Rubicon
I lean in, wanting to use the window in Willow’s door as a mirror. The light inside is just too bright. My reflection’s washed out against the glow through the white, semi-sheer curtains. My hand shakes a little as I arrange my bangs with my fingers. I think I’m straightening them out, but I’m probably just messing them up. At least they aren’t in my eyes.
No clue why I’m so nervous. Probably because, last time I did this, Will had a major meltdown and everything got a little—uh…different. More than just a little. I don’t even want to think about it. As far as I know, everything still is different. Kind of ‘grrr.’ Why I’m doing it again is anybody’s guess.
Oh yeah, I’m doing it because I’m stupid. I’m the dumbest dummy in all—
The light goes out. Stunned, I step back. The door swings open. I didn’t even knock. Willow’s umm…
“Wow. You look—” She looks older, like more mature. Like—umm…wow.
I take in the dress. It’s uh…sleeveless, antiquey beige taffeta with monochrome floral print, black accents… It’s umm…understated. Willow knows something about understated? She’s heard the word? I guess, because evidence. I witness the evidence dubiously. The dress isn’t so much what draws the eye as what’s in it, which is so not her style. But it’s not so not her style that it clashes. There’s no cleavage. The hemline’s below her knee. It’s umm…tasteful, but cute. She looks great, in that ‘Peggy Sue Got Married,’ retro, girl-next-door sort of way. She’s just adorable.
“You’re—” A million questions careen through my head, choking my voice, bouncing around like Pachinko balls and generally making a mess. “Wow.” Mostly what I want to know is ‘how,’ but ‘what’ and ‘why’ might be useful too. “Well, wow, just wow.” Did someone help her pick it out? Did she go to a boutique and ask the sales clerk for help? That’s possible.
I look down. Her shoes will cinch it. If they’re big ugly brown clogs…
They’re cute too—super strappy, Romany sandals that match the piping on the dress. Yeah, she had help. She even has a little clutch purse that’s again not very Willowy. It’s not fuzzy or pastel. It doesn’t look like a stuffed animal. It’s uh…
It occurs to me that I really haven’t looked at her. I’ve looked her over, but not at her. Now I’m almost afraid to. I make myself look up. Something about the way she’s smiling at me is vaguely predatory. My mouth’s hanging open. I clamp it shut. At least I’m not drooling.
This new Willow could’ve gone one of two ways. She could easily look like she’s dressed in her mother’s clothes. That’s how she should look. If she was at all responsible for the makeover, that’s how she would look. But maybe that’s not fair. She has some fashion sense. Really bizarre fashion sense. Definitely not this fashion sense. This is way outside her purview.
The fact that she went to a salon is made glaringly obvious by her hairstyle: sort of a modified Geisha, all artfully curvy and curly and up in a bun with a black headband to match her dress. I’m not sure I could’ve done that to her hair and I’m good.
Willow actually went to a salon. I run that through my head a few times, chewing it over, hoping it’ll sink in. There’s no sinkage. The idea scares the hell out of me. I’m not even sure why. She’s a girl. A salon trip is a good thing. It’s progress. She should enjoy pampering herself as much as any other girl.
It still doesn’t work for me. But she did. The evidence is right in front of me. There isn’t any other reasonable solution. And I’d say they did her makeup too. It’s way different. She looks older. She looks responsible. She even looks a little bit sexy.
Yeah, this is totally scaring the hell out of me. Somewhere in the interim my mouth went dry. The implications are way wigsome. She cared enough about tonight to—
“You look amazing,” I croak, because I should croak something. I should at least finish my though. Or thoughts? I just wish it hadn’t hurt so much. Were there thoughts? Did I share my thoughts? I think I shared them. I think I babbled. I think she’s already gotten the point.
I feel like an idiot. Again.
“Thanks,” she says, shutting the door.
I take the offered hand. What choice do I have?
I expected to find Willow in her bathrobe, despondently relocating the contents of her closet to her bed. We’ve already been through that once. She must’ve decided that doing it again would suck. I concur. But I didn’t expect her to grow up. She looks grown up. It’s a total curve.
She says, “You look great too,” conversationally.
I don’t feel it. I feel horribly underdressed, like I missed the memo that our date was to be formal. Not that she has on a formal, but what she’s wearing is—
She doesn’t look like a teenager. At least not so much. She looks almost sophisticated, which for Willow is a total noodle twirler. If she acts like she looks, I may have to consider the possibility that the Hellmouth had something to do with her makeover. This could be pod Willow or something like that. I might be holding pod Willow’s hand. That’d be bad.
’Kay, so…lets shelve that for the moment. I’m going to reserve judgment on the ‘pod Willow’ thing until she opens her mouth. If she screeches, I’ll worry.
I do. Not worry, the other thing. I look like a pretty average teenage girl—a fact that sometimes bugs my mother. She never says anything, but I know she isn’t thrilled by all of my fashion choices. Like this one. I’m wearing a white, sleeveless mini-dress that might not be the best choice for kicking pod-people ass. It’s actually pretty conservative except for the degree of its mininess. I thought it was cute when I picked it out. It covers everything it should, but if I bend over…
So I just won’t bend over. I don’t bend over anyway. That isn’t something a girl should do. I think Mom gets it. This is what girls wear. I fit in. I—
I don’t fit in now.
Well, it’s too late to go home and change. Will’s dragging me down the sidewalk. Somehow she’s taken charge. She’s leading. I’m following. I must’ve missed another critical piece of info somewhere, an update, a clue. I’m—
She stops abruptly two houses down from her place, still holding on to my hand so inertia whips me around to face her. She looks worried. “Sorry,” she says, “I didn’t want to stick around the house. My mom’s been on the warpath. She thinks I got dressed up to go out on a date with some boy. I got the full lecture about what a waste that is.”
“I’m failing to see the waste,” I mumble.
But she just chatters right over me, “The last thing I need is for her to see you. I’m not sure Mom would put two-and-two together, but I’d rather—”
“Yeah, that might be best,” I reply. This time she actually hears me.
“I think so,” she agrees. If she registers my relief, she shows no sign. Sometime during the splainy, her behavior transformed from ‘agitated’ to ‘excited’ in that bubbly, Willowy way. Subtle difference. Good difference. No pod people present. “So what do you want to do?” she asks.
I slip past Buffy, still clinging to her hand, towing her along. I need to keep moving. If I don’t, all this kinetic energy that’s just kind of bouncing around inside me might go ‘boom.’ Could be messy. Moving is good.
Moving, not too fast. Moving, like strolling. I’m playing it ‘cool.’ A little of the inertia bubbles up, collecting inside my chest—all frothy and full of guffaw. All I can do is hold my breath to tamp it down until it passes. I’ve never been cool before in my life. I’ve watched. I know what it is to be cool. But ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ are two totally different things. Somehow ‘cool’ always comes out ‘spazy’ when I try to be it. I get excited. I say something stupid. I trip over my feet. Tragic miscalculations are a big thing with me.
I’m strolling now. Tragedy free. Look at me go. Still strolling. I’m not sure where I’m going. She hasn’t said. That might be a problem, but I’m going to go wherever we’re going at a leisurely pace. I will pull this off. I won’t wig out. I’ll be normal. Yes siree. That’s me. Normal.
Grinning like a fool isn’t cool or normal. I try to stop and find that my facial muscles are convinced that grinning is the thing to do. She said, ‘Wow.’ The grin sneaks back into place. I snuff it out. It sneaks back. Her reaction was just too—
“Well, food was mentioned, offered or otherwise inferred, right?” Buffy replies, finally, like she’s on some sort of time delay. “I did say ‘dinner,’ didn’t I?” Maybe she’s just not sure if our plans have changed. I sort of threw her for a loop. The loopiness might’ve gotten in the way.
I glance sidelong at her. She’s amused too. Actually seeing her face is nice, but it doesn’t wipe away the memory of the loopiness. Her lips formed this pretty, kissable ‘o.’ Total victory. Points to me. I surprised Buffy. In the good way. She said ‘wow.’ She said ‘wow’ lots. Another flash of pride makes me giddy. She said I look ‘amazing.’
Still grinning. I can’t help it. “Food sounds good,” I say, hoping I sound unconcerned, casual, cool as a cucumber…if cucumbers squeaked. My face flushes. It’s the beginning of the end. The apogee in my spiral toward impending geeky doom. I pulled off two, maybe three minutes of actual coolness. I should be pleased. That’s a new personal best.
“My mom mentioned a restaurant that she has lunch at sometimes when she’s at the gallery,” Buffy says, still in conversational mode. She sounds totally at ease, like she didn’t even notice. “I thought it sounded good. Do you have anything against vegan food?”
I glance again. She looks like Buffy—a contented Buffy who might even be relatively happy. Relaxed even. It’s totally weird. ‘Warning flags’ and ‘caution lights’ weird. Alarm sirens should be whooping, like in some disaster movie. She was so twitchy, so distant. What changed?
I haven’t changed. I still think that she’s one of the most beautiful, wonderful people I’ve ever met. My heart flutters a little when she smiles. When she smiles at me, it flutters a lot. I get all woozy in the head, short of breath, giddy, happy…goofily so. Not that that’s happened bunches. She’s been totally evasive, elusive, slippery as an eel.
Now she’s holding my hand. We’re walking down the street almost like a couple. We’re marginally coupley and she isn’t wigging out.
Her grip on my hand changes. I think she’s going to let go, like my thought has somehow caused a psychic upheaval. She’s honed in. She’s going to withdraw. I was holding her hand. I took hold. It was me. I initiated the handholding. I slacken my grip, giving over to whatever she wants. Something shifts in an unexpected way. Now she’s holding my hand. She laces her fingers through mine. Her grip snugs, clamping my splayed fingers. She actually wants this. What changed?
“Willow?” she says, concerned. She’s giving me a questing look.
Okay, so…maybe she’s wigging out a little, but that’s just because of me—because of how I’m acting, not because of the fact I’m here and handholding is happening. Self-consciously I curl my fingers over the back of her hand, willing myself not to feel so unwilling. I’m not. Just the opposite, actually. Her skin is so soft and warm under my fingertips. It makes me want to caress—to savor its texture. I don’t.
I lick my lips, trying to wet my whistle, stalling, scraping the bottom of my mental barrel, scrabbling to remember what was said. She was talking about food. I couldn’t eat now if I tried, but that’s what she wants. That’s why we’re going out, so… “That sounds fine.” Unfortunately, I sound a whole lot less than ‘fine.’ Clearing my throat has little effect on the frog that’s taken up residence somewhere around my vocal cords. It’s called all of its froggy friends. They’ve moved into my tummy where they’re doing froggy gymnastics and giving me the willies. I feel—
I feel her attention. Finally, after a sizeable, calculating pause, she asks, “Are you alright?” She sounds so concerned I—
So much for calm, cool, collected ‘me.’ She flew the coop, leaving behind the ‘me’ who’s terrified that whatever’s happening is some sort of spell. Not actual magic, but a situational spell. The kind of condition created by the right precarious concoction of social alchemy. The perfect, delicate balance of human elements, perceived emotions, celestial alignments, ambient temperature, mood lighting and other extremely sensitive, esoteric stuff.
Alright, so…sodium street lamps don’t really count as ‘mood lighting,’ but whatever. This is still the kind of illusion that could easily be broken with one wrong word—one false move—the sort of thing that I do all the time. The sort of thing I’m doing right now and I haven’t said a word.
Well, okay, I said three—three words that were obviously a problem, not because of what they meant, but because they weren’t meant. I’m such a fibber. How can I be expected to maintain all this pretense? My feet practically sublet space from my tongue.
She’s glanced at me five times in the last minute. I need to say something. “I’m doing okay.” Forming these words—these three harmless, innocent, utterly commonplace words—is hard. They might’ve smoothed things over, if they were actually true. They aren’t, so they came out thick and muffled. Pretense be damned.
I’m not entirely sure why my eyes are burning. That old, familiar, highly annoying pressure’s moved in behind them. Tears collect. If I blink, I’ll end up looking like Pierrot. That’ll show me. See what I get for trying to act cool? For no good reason whatsoever I feel like someone took a scooper—like for ice cream or melons—and scooped out my heart. That sounds painful, if not a little gross and just a smidge melodramatic, but it matches what I feel: hopeless, empty, bereft. It makes no sense. She’s still with me. She’s worried about me. Silly, stupid me, all I can seem to think is that she’s going to leave me again. I’ll say or do the wrong thing. She’ll run away and never look back. It’s ridiculous.
She doesn’t. She keeps going. We keep going together. She ushers me along. I follow, caught in a weird sort of trance where I watch the sidewalk—my pink painted toenails as they peek out from beneath my skirt—peeking out of my toeless shoes—one big toe at a time, back-and-forth—and try not to feel what I’m feeling. I focus on the brush of soft fabric as it swooshes around my thighs, the warm breeze that caresses me head to toe when cars pass us by, the clip-clop of our heels, the gentle rise and fall of our steps, the gentler rise and fall of my chest—breathe in, breathe out—the rush of air flooding my lungs, the sounds of engines, people, insects, animals, life…
Several, many minutes later, she stops abruptly, doing the same thing to me that I did to her. As I swing around, I get the first look I’ve had at my surroundings in blocks. Several blocks. More blocks than I expected. We’re almost downtown. I had no idea. My sense of time is completely bamboozled. It feels like forever ago when we left the house, but just a few minutes. Really, it hasn’t been more than ten, probably more like five, judging from our surroundings.
Her hands close around my upper arms. She cranes her neck, stooping down, tiling her head, trying to see my face. That approach only lasts long enough for her to ask, “Are you okay?” Dissatisfied, she puts the edge of her index finger under my chin and lifts. Our eyes meet. I look away, try to slip away, pull away. I don’t want this. I don’t want her to see how upset I am. I—
“What’s wrong?” she asks. All of her efforts to wrangle me stop. “Did I do something wrong?” She sounds hurt now. Confused. Upset. She can’t understand why I’m freaking out.
I’m not sure I can explain it. The tears break free and roll down my cheeks. Now, I’ve done it. How can I tell her that what’s wrong is that I’m afraid she’ll leave me again?
Of course, if I don’t tell her, she probably will leave. She’ll decide I’m more trouble than I’m worth. Either way, I end up alone.
“I don’t want to be alone,” Willow snivels as she totally falls apart.
‘Snivels’ isn’t fair. That makes it sound like she’s throwing some sort of pity part. She isn’t. I’m pretty sure that ‘oh, poor me’ doesn’t even apply. She’s just really, really upset. So upset it’s hard to make out words between her gasps and sobs.
I should do something. Making up my mind isn’t that hard. My options are limited. I tempt fate by going for plan ‘a’ and coax her into my arms. She doesn’t resist, or resort to fisticuffs, so I move on to the ‘attempt to offer comfort’ part of my brilliant plan. Backrubs seem reasonable. She doesn’t flinch, so I guess…
No clue what went wrong. She was fine. In fact, she seemed better than fine. She was confident and cheerful. I’ve never seen her more in control without a computer to hide behind. Now she’s soaking the curve of my shoulder and neck in steamy, salty sogginess.
Did I do something wrong? She never answered me. Maybe I did. I’m afraid to ask again. I think my best bet for weathering this storm is to continue rubbing her back. That kind of says ‘I’m not a threat.’ Even animals get that.
Well, an animal that was this upset wouldn’t. It’d try to take my hand off. Maybe I should rethink my stance on the ‘backrub’ thing? I like my hand. The moment I stop, she pulls away. It comes to me that I was probably wrong when she takes a shuddering breath. I wait for it, sure she’s going to let me have it. I’ll get my answer and more. A real earful. Joy.
“It wasn’t something I did,” she says, hiding her face by becoming really interested in the nothing that’s going on down the street. “If it was, I’d understand. It’d be my fault.” She isn’t screaming so far. That’s probably a good sign. “It’d be something I could’ve helped. I could’ve done something different.” I have no clue what she means. “But I can’t help how I feel.” She grows progressively more agitated as she explains, drawing away, turning away, so it’s no surprise when she explodes. “It isn’t fair! It isn’t fair that I should be punished for caring for you! That’s all I did and you ran away. You abandoned me. You left me and it hurt. How is that fair?”
I was holding onto a little sliver of hope, but as she goes from ramble to rant, I see how naive that was. And bonus, I feel more-and-more like a heel. And I’m angry. Both at once. It’s quite the juggling act. The two emotions war for dominance. She isn’t the only one who’s not sure how to feel. I thought we were past this. I’m pretty sure I called truce. And I’m equally sure that she accepted. She obviously forgot. I stare at her back. She’s hunched over, hugging herself. I must’ve really hurt her. I feel awful. And I’m annoyed as hell. She doesn’t get that, by feeling the way she does, she’s making demands of me. She’s taking something from me. She wants to complicate things more than they already are. I think they’re complicated enough.
Well, okay, maybe complication isn’t something she wants, but she sure is asking for it. I don’t want to lose her. I love her. Admittedly my feelings are more sisterly. Selfish thing I am, I think that’s the way it should be. That what I feel is correct. But turn that around and what I’m saying is that what she feels is incorrect. Who am I to judge?
What can I possibly say or do to make things better?
“I’m sorry,” seems like a good place to start. I add, “I won’t leave you,” for good measure.
She glances over her shoulder. “Really?”
It would’ve been better if she’s managed to put a little gusto in that ‘really.’ You can’t have everything. I need to say more. I should explain. “It was wrong for me to avoid you. I shouldn’t have.” That’s fair. I’m still scared of what’s happening, but I guess I can’t avoid it. I can’t avoid her unless I want to hurt her. Thing is, I’m not sure I won’t hurt her if I stick around. This just sucks. Why can’t my life be simple? All I wanted was to finish school. Maybe go to college. Have a life. Meet a guy. Make a place for myself in the world.
Instead, I’m saddled with a big fat destiny that comes with the extra added benefit of multiple attempts on my life. I have a couple of wacky sidekicks. One them’s in love with me. Not unexpected, except for the plot twist. I have an over-the-hill, crotchety, know-it-all, English librarian for a mentor—but I guess I could shorten that to ‘English librarian’ and pretty much say the same thing. Basically, my life’s turned into the plot from a bad horror flick.
And now I’m mad again. Yay! “It’s not fair, Will. Do you know how many people are placing demands on me?” I huff. “Too many. I kind of hoped that you and Xander wouldn’t, but I guess I was just kidding myself.”
Will turns on me, indignant. “I’m not asking anything of you,” she shouts. Her brow crinkles in consideration. So much for anger. “Well, other than what I asked,” she amends. “I want you around. Is that too much to ask?”
The urge to grin almost blows my chance. I have a point to make. Grinning would be counterproductive. “Don’t you see? You’re making demands of me by doing what you’re doing. You need me to return your feelings and I’m not sure I can do that.”
I’ve never seen her so mad. It falls over her face like a quick-moving shadow, shocking the cookies out of me. What did I say? All I did was tell the truth.
She tries to storm away so fast her parting shot isn’t even complete, “Well, if I’m such a burden to you—”
My mouth drops open in shock, but my reflexes still work. Peeved, I snatch her arm to stop her. “Would you hold on?” I snap. Apparently her running away isn’t a problem.
Her back’s to me. She doesn’t turn around. As she draws a breath to yell at me, I cut her off in exasperation, “Can’t you see how scary this is for me? I feel like if I can’t care for you the way you need me to, it’ll hurt you. It’ll hurt me too. It feels like anything I do I will be wrong. I just want my best friend back and I’m not sure how to get her back. I feel like I’m losing something precious. It’s being taken from me because my emotions aren’t right. They aren’t versatile enough or whatever. It hurts.” A nervous smile slips though the piles of angst I’m barely holding back. “I’m afraid I’ll let you down. How silly is that?” I want to laugh, but choke it back. “You’re right. It isn’t fair.”
I let go a sigh. “I need a break,” I admit.
She glances over her shoulder. It’s weird. I swear she looks crestfallen. How does that fit? I thought she was running away. My statement—how she took it—those two things should go really well together, not that that’s what I meant. What I meant was: “Not from you. I just need a chance to figure this out. Please?”
Her snit breaks right at the end. It’s the ‘please’ that does it. I s’pose that’s good. At least something does the trick. Before what I want really registers, I say, “Please,” again. I’m holding my arms out and down. I want to give her another hug. Presumptuous considering, but she turns to face me. The distance closes. I take her in my arms. This is weird too. I’m not a huggy person, but right now I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.
End of Part Eight: Crossing the Rubicon
Continued in Part Nine: In the Crosshairs
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