Since Buffy and Will couldn't be out of the store at the same time, Sean had formed the habit of eating dinner with whichever one was free on the occasional nights he dropped by. Between the two of them, Buffy had learned a lot about their lives and friendship. Both had been jocks—Sean a football player and Will a valued member of the soccer, or, as he insisted on calling it, "real football", team. They both loved the beach and were weekend surfers.
They'd gone to different colleges and pursued different career paths, but somehow had maintained the friendship they'd begun when Will first arrived at South Lakes High School, a stranger to both the school and the country. Sean had taken the smart, funny and athletic young Brit under his wing. Will's need for friends and guidance in the ways of his new country was long gone, but he still remembered Sean's welcome assistance when everything was new and different and, in spite of the differences in their current life styles, he still enjoyed his old friend's company.
There'd been a few days of awkwardness between them following Buffy's first dinner with Sean, but Will's growing feelings for her were more than obvious to someone who had known him so long, and Sean had eased himself out of the picture without making a big deal of it. His transition from potential dating material to casual friend was so gradual and seamless that none of them noticed there'd been a change. Will was Buffy's daily companion, and Sean his charming friend who showed up occasionally to visit with them on slow nights.
Having the steady company of two such different but good-looking and entertaining men more than made up for the lack of actual dating in Buffy's life. And if she occasionally woke in the middle of the night, remembering scenes of fighting with and against men who bore an uncanny resemblance to her two new friends, she just jotted the memories down in her notebook and went back to sleep - happily ignoring both the resemblances and the occasions in which her dream men were wearing fangs and distorted faces.
Since Buffy took her notebooks with her everywhere, she couldn't hide them from Will for very long. It didn't take him long to realize that she wasn't doing homework when she sat down during lulls and jotted things down in one or the other of the notebooks, but his first question about what she was writing so vigorously put such a frightened expression on her face that he quickly backed off and assured her that he didn't want to pry into her business. However, his curiosity was obviously killing him, and one evening when the store was particularly quiet, and she had been scribbling furiously, he couldn't contain himself any longer.
"Should I be worried?" he said with a teasing smile. Buffy blinked at him.
"Worried? About what?"
"That you're going to be a famous author long before I am."
"Oh—you mean this stuff...." She studied his kind face, searching for any sign of a mean streak that she was sure he didn't have. When she saw nothing there but affection and genuine curiosity, she beckoned him to sit down opposite her.
"If I..." She stopped, shook her head and stared over. "I want to tell you some... stuff... about me, but I'm afraid you won't like me anymore and you'll want to stay as far away from me as you can get."
He reached forward and took her hand in his. The calluses from his martial arts training gave her another flashback to a paler hand with similar rough areas and she gasped. Frowning at her response, but encouraged that she hadn't pulled away, he stroked her hand gently.
"Buffy, I think you know by now that there isn't much you could do to make me stay away from you. I'm your friend, and if you want to tell me what you're doing, I want to hear it. But if you don't, if it's too personal or none of my business, that's alright, too."
"I know you're my friend, Will," she said. "And I trust you, I do. I—" A sudden flashback to a time when she hadn't trusted Spike and been surprised to find she could sent her diving for her "memory" book. She hastily scribbled down enough to remind her that she needed to write about Spike and how he'd earned her trust for the first time.
She finished her notes and looked up with an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry. I did it again, didn't I? I'm going to explain, really. You just have to promise you won't think I'm crazy.... Er, well, actually, that's kinda what I have to tell you—that I am crazy. Or, I was, but now I'm better and all this writing stuff down is supposed to be helping me stay better."
Taking a deep breath, she glanced around to be sure there weren't any customers and then began. "I spent the past few... okay, several... years in a mental hospital," she said, looking him firmly in the eye as she did so. He just nodded encouragingly and sat back in his chair. Twenty minutes later, she was winding down just as a mother and her daughter came into the store looking for some research materials and Buffy got up to wait on them.
When she had checked them out, she walked slowly back to where Will was still sitting in his chair, seemingly staring off into space. He glanced up when he felt her approach and gave her a warm smile.
"So," he said, "I was right. You will be a famous writer long before I am. There's no way I can match that imagination." There was no mockery in his voice, or on his expressive face, just a soft understanding and a trace of admiration.
"Yeah, that's me. Buffy the imaginer," she agreed with a wry smile. "Pretty weird, huh?"
"It's pretty amazing, actually." He picked up the notebook in which she was recording her memories of her daily life as well as she could remember it. "May I?"
Buffy nodded shyly. "I'm supposed to be keeping a journal—except it's all stuff that happened a long time ago, so I tend only to remember the exciting stuff. Sort of like a diary, I guess. Only with blood and killing things."
Without responding, he skimmed through the first several pages, pausing occasionally to read something more carefully, then skipping ahead again. Buffy fidgeted in her chair, grateful when she had to get up again to wait on customers and didn't have to watch his face as he read through what she still sometimes thought of as her life.
"Will?" she said, interrupting his reading. "It's time to go home."
He stood up and handed the notebook back to her, gesturing at the other ones. "So what's in those?"
"Oh, well, this one is for my flashbacks. Each time it happens, I have to write down what it was and what I think might have triggered it. " She flushed and looked at the rug. "I think that's Dr. Swinson's way of making sure that I'm not spending too much time out of touch with reality. If I have to stop and write stuff down, it reminds me that it didn't really happen."
"And this one?" He pointed at the one that seemed the least used.
"That was my idea. I was going to write down everything I can remember from my real life, before I got sick. To see how many things or people I put into my delusion that are actually based on real people or things that happened."
"And how's that working out?"
Buffy frowned. "Probably not as well as she thought it would. Except for my parents, I haven't come up with anybody I used to know who reminds me of somebody in Sunnydale."
He cocked his head at her in a gesture already so familiar that she no longer bothered to enter it in her "flashback" notebook.
"Does this have anything to do with asking me and Sean what high school we went to?"
Buffy blushed. "Yeah, it does. I thought maybe if you guys went to Hemery, even if you were, like, way ahead of me, I might have seen you often enough to...."
"To make us part of your fantasy?"
"It isn't... wasn't a 'fantasy'. It was a delusion. An imaginary world." Buffy glared at him, which felt much too familiar considering that this was the first time Will had so much as mildly annoyed her since they'd met.
"And we were part of that imaginary world? Seriously?"
"I don't know," she mumbled, embarrassed at how silly it sounded when she said it out loud. "I just know that you look a lot like Sp—one of the people in my delusion. You even have sort of the same name," she added when he started to shrug. "And Sean kinda looks like An—another person I knew there. And you're kind of connected. I mean being friends and having gone to high school together and stuff, so I just thought...."
"But we didn't go to Hemery, Buffy," he said. "We don't even know anyone who did. We're from the opposite side of the city."
"I know," she pouted. "You told me. But you look so much like him!"
"Ah, come on, luv." he said, "How many men must there be who look like me? I mean, granted, they can't all be this good-looking, but—"
"And now you're starting to sound like him," she said, stamping her foot. "Don't do that!"
"Why not?" His brow wrinkled at her uncharacteristic vehemence. "I thought you wanted to have more flashbacks to write in your little book there."
"I don't want them! I want to understand them. And right now, every time I look at you, you say or do something that makes me think of Spike!"
"Spike? I remind you of some guy called 'Spike'?" Will did his best to look only curious, but something in his expression made Buffy narrow her eyes suspiciously.
"Yes, Spike. Why?"
"No reason. No reason at all." He bit back a comment about not caring to be compared to someone whose name reminded him of a dog.
"You're lying. You've always been a lousy—I mean—" Buffy slumped back into the chair and moaned. "Oh, God. Now I'm starting to talk to you like you are Spike. I knew this was a bad idea."
Torn by her obvious distress, Will dropped to his knees in front of her.
"I'm sorry, luv. Please don't be upset. We'll figure this out. There's got to be an explanation. Maybe we met somewhere else. I used to work at soccer camps in the summers when I was in high school; maybe you were at one of them?"
Buffy shook her head. "I was an ice-skater and a gymnast. I never played other sports because I was afraid I'd get hurt and not be able to compete when I needed to."
"Well, I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for all this. We just have to sort it out."
"The only reasonable explanation is that I'm going crazy again." Her shoulders tensed and her face fell into unhappy lines.
"Don't say that!" he snapped, fighting the urge to shake her. "You're here now, and you're going to stay here. You're going to finish college and...and lead a perfectly normal life."
"Don't be so sure," she grumbled, even as she relaxed a little. "You don't know that."
"I know that you're strong and brave and smart, and that you're not going to let this thing ruin your life. I won't let you."
Buffy suddenly leaned forward to where he still knelt in front of her and brushed her lips across his. Then gasped as the memory of another time and place, another grateful kiss, hit her.
"What's that, then?" Will asked quietly, not moving away.
"Thank you. Thank you for being my friend and for believing in me and for not wanting to run away when you found out you were working with a crazy person."
His eyes asking for silent permission, Will leaned in and touched his lips to hers, lingering just long enough to make it clear that it was a kiss, but not so long as to make her uncomfortable. He sat back and cocked his head again, noticing her tiny flinch, but ignoring it in favor of saying what he wanted to say.
"I can't imagine anything you could do that would make me want to run away from you," he said, raising one hand to tuck a piece of hair behind her ear.
When her only reply was to blush from her hairline to what he could see of her cleavage, he sighed and rose gracefully to his feet, holding out his hand and pulling her up too.
"Let's get you home and we'll figure this out some more tomorrow, yeah?"
"Yeah, okay. Let me get my stuff." She scooped up her notebooks and pen, got her purse and good shoes from the drawer and walked outside to wait for him to drop the anti-theft barrier. They walked through the mall, not speaking but in a relatively comfortable silence for two people whose friendship had perhaps just moved to a new level.
As they walked towards the parking lot, Buffy tried to come to grips with this new development in her life. She'd made a lot of casual friends among the other girls her age working in nearby stores, and even had a few "study buddies" from the college. However, no one had become a part of her life the way Will had.
Buffy's admission that she'd been in a mental hospital, and the subsequent exchange of kisses, contributed to a few anxious moments when they approached Will's car. What had begun as a friendly gesture on his part—dropping her off at home after work so that her parents didn't have to work around her schedule—suddenly loomed much larger.
When he moved ahead to open the car door for her, she froze and stared at him with wide eyes.
"Nothing. Except... I can open my own doors. You don't need to--"
Will sighed and closed the door, leaning up against it to look at her.
"Buffy," he began, pausing and running his hands through his hair. "I can't take back the kiss. And I can't take back anything I said tonight. But if it's going to make you uncomfortable to be around me--"
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I don't mean to... and I'm not saying we can't... but I...." She blew out her breath in a loud sigh. "I just told you a big, important secret about me. And I did it because you're my friend. I trust you, and I... I need... I need to know that you're still my friend."
He reached out a hand and pulled her closer, almost, but not quite holding her in a loose embrace.
"I will always be your friend, Buffy. No matter what else does or doesn't happen between us—nothing will change that. I can't tell you what it means that you shared your secret with me. That you trust me that much. I don't want to do anything to jeopardize that relationship. And I sure as hell don't want you to be uncomfortable or afraid to be alone with me."
Buffy shook her head in frustration. "See? This is the problem. I don't know how to do this. In real life, I've never had a boyfriend—not since ninth grade, anyway. In my imaginary world, I've had at least some—or, well, two maybe... if you don't count that jerk, Parker... and Spike isn't.... Anyway, the point is, I don't know how to behave with a guy who likes me. I don't know how to date, I don't know how to not date if I don't want to, and I don't know how to tell what the guy wants. It scares me. I don't want to do something wrong and lose you as my friend."
"Not gonna happen, luv." He stood up and opened the car door again. "Tell you what. You decide if, when and how much you want our relationship to change. I won't push you, and if anything I do or say makes you uncomfortable, you just tell me, yeah? I'll stop."
"Really?" Buffy said, as she slid into the car. "You'll let me be the decider?"
"That's what I said, isn't it?" He got into the driver's side and pulled his door closed. As he worked on putting the key in the ignition, he turned his head to grin at her. "Doesn't mean I'm not going to be hovering around, mind you. Just in case you do decide you want more; I don't want to be too far away." He waggled an eyebrow at her and gave her a theatrical leer.
Buffy giggled and relaxed into her seat. The rest of the ride home was spent in easy small talk that ended when they reached her house.
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