A Matter Of Time
TITLE: A Matter Of Time
SUMMARY: A year in reverse. Alternate Reality
RATING: mild R.
Thank you to Lucy Maree, Ares, Ashes, Kairos and Courtney for cheering me on. And special thanks to Sharon, Nicia and Leah for the beta. You ladies are all amazing!
Written for the IWRY Marathon 2012.
Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity. Hippocrates.
She wakes up to tight arms around her body and a familiar whisper against her temple. "Hush," he says, and then again, "Hush, Buffy." Only then does she realize that she's still screaming. Funny how it sounds more like tiny whimpers in the real world. "Hush," he repeats one final time, although she's already clamped her lips together.
It's so embarrassing, or at least, it will be in the morning. Right now she's just grateful that she decided to spend the night with Angel; Willow would only wait until the nightmare ran its course and then look sad and scared through the rest of the night - or worse, she'd want to talk.
Best friends can be annoying like that.
She shakes her head.
He says nothing, but his arms around her waist are answer enough. She hates how her body reacts to these dreams, how she's suddenly back in that room, alone and helpless and suddenly so, so cold... It's been a year, and yet the memory is still strong in her - and maybe she will never forget it. What then? "Don't let go," she says. He doesn't. And so she's free to focus on the feel of his legs against hers, her toes brushing the material of his pants. She imagines the picture of them: two figures in a dark room, a man and a woman in a bed, maybe they're lovers, maybe they're just in love, maybe they're together for this one last night. But in this picture of them - in her picture - they're so entwined in each other that it would take the combined forces of hell to separate them.
She smiles at the thought, and the cold recedes a little. "Was it a bad one?" she asks even though it doesn't matter.
They learned early that she shouldn't be shaken out of the dream - desperate prey reacts with blind violence, after all, and that's what she becomes all over again in each nightmare. On the worst nights - that first week after the funeral being the absolute worst - she doesn't even need to be awake to fight her way out of the room. Those are the days she wakes up to a moody boyfriend or a terrified witchy roommate.
When her nineteenth birthday rolled up, she chose Angel's place as her haven.
He would never dare pity her.
Now his hand brushes her shoulder lightly, travels down her arm to squeeze reassuringly and stops so close to her breast that she wonders whether he's conscious of it. "There've been worse," he says.
At least he's stopped lying to her face.
Still, he has always excelled at lying to himself, but she's learned to work around it. "Angel?" She moves until his hand is in the right place, until their bodies resemble a lovers' embrace rather than the aftermath of a nightmare. She could kiss him, too, she could ask without words. But she has also learned that words are important between them. "Please?"
Once upon a time, she wished for nothing more than to wake up like this forever - or for as long as she lived, however short that time might be. Now she wishes for kisses, for touch, for whatever they lost two years ago. In the space where happiness should have been, they have filled it with too many aborted attempts to stay apart and covered it with promises and caresses and quiet moments of ecstasy in the dark.
His touch continues down to her waist, draws a soothing path across her abdomen, and rests there. "Sleep, Buffy."
She looks at him. Her last desire is to go back to sleep and he knows it. She wants.... She wants. "But...."
"Not tonight, Buffy."
Not when you're still shaking, he means.
One... two... eleven... She counts up to twenty-seven before the body around hers relaxes enough that she can move onto her side to look at him. "I hate my birthday," she whispers in the silence that follows.
"I...." She almost leaves it there. But this is Angel. If she can't tell Angel, who can be told? "I don't think I hate Giles. Not as much. Not anymore."
He brings her closer to his body, tucks her against him as if he could hide her far enough inside himself that the nightmares would never catch up with her. He kisses the crown of her head once, and doesn't refuse the invitation of her lips when she tilts up her face. "I know." The kiss lasts a moment longer but when it finishes, it has pushed the last of the cold from her. "Sleep, darling."
Buffy hugs herself to him and closes her eyes.
Before she falls asleep, what he's just called her sinks in.
Angel doesn't use endearments for her, not in recent memory, and never often even before then. Such words went the way of 'lover' and 'Buff' and 'my dear'.
It must have been a very bad dream, after all.
six hours ago
"Everything looks the same," she says as she crosses the threshold. Angel walks beside her, and doesn't apologize when there's no barrier to keep him outside. "Have you come often?"
"You know I have."
Buffy nods. Indeed, she knew; she just never let him talk about it. "Thanks for bringing me."
He stares at her for a long moment. It must be only a few seconds, and yet it feels as if they've just rehashed the argument that had lasted the whole drive here. Time never plays by the rules when their eyes meet; she knows him too well, and sometimes she suspects that he knows her even better. "You'll be fine," he finally says.
It's a little bit of a question, so she answers with the most confident smile she can muster up. It's tiny, but it's there.
"I'll go talk with Spike. He says Giles's friend had news he can check out."
"We are not his checking account." Buffy rolls her eyes. "We can get the information on our own."
"But it's so much better when they rough him up for being too curious," he tells her with a big smirk, turning on his heel to head back outside, to the beaten CitroŽn where a familiar figure is smoking as he waits. It seems not every vampire in their acquaintance with them has been invited in.
A part of her knows that it's foolish to have not wanted to visit here. Giles betrayed her, and the cost of it was too high. But hasn't enough time passed already? Even now, she doesn't want to touch anything in this apartment; she refuses to sit down on his couch, look through his books or drink his tea. That part of her knows that Willow's information often comes from the books around her and the man now standing before her. "I'm glad you're all right," she says, surprised at herself when the words don't come choked up or untrue.
Not long ago, she wanted him out of her life, demanded that he leave her sight and her town.
But she has never wanted him dead.
Not when there are so many others guiltier than he is.
"Ah... Thank you." On his part, Giles does look surprised at seeing her. "I, well. I never thought I'd be grateful we were on speaking terms with Spike."
Buffy shrugs. Spike doesn't bother her and she doesn't stake him. Angel vacillates between keeping him under his wing or throwing him to the wolves - or perhaps sending him to Faith. It's the last threat that keeps that blond annoyance in check most of the time. So far, it works. "Willow says it was Rayne. He gonna be trouble?"
An unexpected chuckle answers her question. "No."
She watches him, this ex-Watcher of hers. Once, someone said he had a father's love for her. Considering the timing, it had been the most ironic statement anyone had ever made in her hearing - and that includes all comments about her height. But Giles does face up to his problems - he stuck around in Sunnydale, didn't he? Now he has bruises on his face, and probably more and bigger hidden under his clothes. His knuckles are raw, too. "But you didn't kill him."
His lips purse. "I wouldn't..."
"Yes, you would." She doesn't know why she's so sure. Maybe she is biased. Maybe it's that he himself wrenched the rose-colored glasses from her face. "If he were enough of a threat, you would. If you didn't have a choice. Because it would be the right thing - your duty. And you always do your duty, don't you?" She looks him in the eye, suddenly furious, and the pain she finds there makes her gasp. "Oh God."
"Buffy -" His hand reaches out, to soothe, to comfort, to apologise, and her emotions peak.
If he touches her, she'll slam him against the nearest wall. Or perhaps she'll just cry. "Don't!"
His hand retreats.
So does she.
"You'll never forgive me, will you?" His voice is loud enough to stop her. After all she's the Slayer and he's the Watcher. A part of her is coded to jump when he asks - she blames that part for having started to miss him. "I'm sorry."
He's said that before. He said it the first time as he took her away from... A small dark room flashes through her mind. The smell of blood. The dead. The cold.
It had been so very cold.
She had been so weak.
"It's all right. I have accepted it," he's saying now. "But one last thing, Buffy. The Initiative. I know Ethan cannot be trusted, but I also know he's a manipulative bastard who is too cunning to deal in complete falsehoods."
That jars her back to the present.
The Initiative is courting her, she knows, with Riley Finn inviting her to their most interesting hunting parties and Professor Walsh turning a blind eye to her choice of a lover and her refusal to finish off an old enemy when he was at his most pathetic.
Even Spike deserves better.
"Rayne told you there's something fishy about the Initiative. What is it?"
"...not exactly. But he had a point: they're upsetting things. The balance is tipping to their side, indeed, but is it our side as well? That's not clear to me yet."
Buffy stares at him. "It's like listening to Angel, except in British and kind of hated."
Giles blinks, but not at the insult. Typical. "He agrees with me?"
Angel has more doubts about the Initiative than about the ever-mysterious Powers That Be. At least the visions they sponsor are pretty straightforward once one got used to them, he says. "They chipped his favorite whipping boy slash bitterest enemy slash twisted-family-from-hell companion, and now he has no good excuse to go after him with some heavy chains and a knife or two. He's pissed."
"But..." Giles's bafflement is palpable. "They're always fighting each other!"
True. Angel has sheepishly confessed that it must have become their bonding ritual three weeks after Spike rose to join them, somewhere in the eighteenth century. "It's their thing. When they're not actually trying to kill each other, that is," she adds, remembering Spike's quest after the Amara ring. That had been for real. Spike is the luckiest vampire in the world, to get incapacitated before she caught up with him.
She was too busy to pursue him that week, she remembers that. Tending to Angel's wounds. She slept by herself through that time, too scared that she'd hurt her boyfriend beyond his healing abilities if her dreams took a turn for the worst.
If Spike ever gets that chip out - and sometimes she hopes that he will - they'll have a large account to settle.
"I'll look into it," she tells Giles, back to the present business. "Walsh said she's looking into giving me more access. Maybe I'll learn something about what they really are after." Because she learned the hard way that it doesn't matter how virtuous an organization professes to be; there are always rotten apples to sour the results. "I'll -" No. She won't come to share her findings. "I'll ask Angel, or maybe Willow, to tell you if anything is share-worthy."
"That would be acceptable. I'll do what I can on my end; I still have some contacts left." Neither mentions why he's lost many of the sources he had since his arrival in Sunnydale until a year ago. "I'll inform... I suppose I'll inform Willow if something comes up."
"Good." She glances toward the apartment door and is relieved when she sees Angel coming in. Willow is with him, her arms full with ingredients from the Magic Shop. It seems it's Giles's turn to try her skills in curative potions. That means he won't stay by himself; that's good after the day he's had, isn't it? "I'm going now."
Giles nods. There's a second when it looks as if he'll say something, but his mouth closes without a sound.
If he wishes her a happy birthday, belated as it may be, she might lose it.
When she reaches Angel, she threads her arm through his, but doesn't really lean into him until they're in sight of the car.
"You were fine."
It's not a question this time, but she answers anyway. "I was fine. I was in there, and I talked to him, and I was fine."
His embrace is not a surprise, and neither are the words he whispers in her ear. Her eyes are dry again when she lifts her face from his coat; the coat is not. "Take me home, Angel. There are things we need to do, but we can do them tomorrow. Just take me home now. I don't want to think about today anymore."
The ride is silent until they're almost at the mansion. "I should stay in a guest room tonight," she says. "Just in case."
He looks angry when he turns toward her. "No."
"But - What if...?"
"Are you afraid?"
She can hurt him. She has hurt him, and she didn't even recognize him while she was doing it.
She is terrified.
"I'm not afraid, Buffy, not of you. Never of you." He takes a hand off the wheel and puts it on her knee. "Do you believe me?"
The crazy thing is that she does believe him. "Why do you always ask me that?"
"Because you need to hear the answer." There is a light squeeze at her thigh before he lets go. "So let's hear it."
He grins. "And you'll spend the night with me?"
She smiles back. Takes this moment and saves it deep inside herself, hoping that someday, it will push the bad memories away. "I'll steal your pillow, too."
two months ago
"Thank you," she tells the man at her side.
Sometimes it is easy to forget that Doyle is a fellow fighter, perhaps because he doesn't do much of the fight. Faith says that he's her own personal Xander, and actually threatened violence if Buffy ever attempted to steal him away. Buffy had laughed and assured her friend that she never was into someone else's lover. "We Slayers are better than that," she told Faith. "And, really. You're fooling nobody with that friends-only thing."
Faith never denied the charge, and Buffy tries hard not to wonder how Doyle manages her sister Slayer without dropping from exhaustion every night. Must be the half-demon in him, definitely.
"Ladies don't tell," Faith said when Buffy hinted at inhuman stamina.
Buffy laughed harder at that.
Now she thinks she understands better the bonds between this man and her wilder friend. Doyle is fun, yes, and not very serious unless the world is ending or a Wolfram & Hart employee decides to drop by and visit their quarters. But he is loyal, and he won't let evil hordes of hell or confounding paperwork shift him from the course he's chosen. There is a story behind that much loyalty, Buffy can sense it. Nobody is so steadfast without having run through chaos at least once - she would know. But she doesn't ask. It's Doyle's story to tell, and as much as they work toward the same goal, sometimes even in the same place, he is not one of hers.
She doesn't begrudge Faith the chance to get tangled in her sidekicks' lives; she has enough with Willow's grief and Oz's absence and Xander and Cordelia's yo-yo relationship.
Doyle can keep his secrets from her.
But after today, she wants to get to know him a little better. "No, really. Thanks for driving me. I love coming with Angel, but I really couldn't wait until sunset."
Doyle nods in recognition. "Don't get your hopes up, though."
"I'm a good guy. They are good guys. I just have to go in and tell them what's what."
"No, no, no," he answers, looking quite distressed. "The Oracles aren't... They don't see things as you or I would, a'right?"
Perhaps, but it doesn't matter. From what little Doyle knows about them, Buffy has drawn her own conclusion.
She doesn't care where they came from, or how they do their thing, or why they ask for 'gifts' - really, did no higher representative of Good care to act the part anymore? Whatever happened to the satisfaction of a job well done being enough reward?
Is she the only one phoning her father every other week to cover her expenses?
She's had it with the messengers from the Powers That Be, always messing with her. They're hell on her love life, what with that Whistler guy hinting that Angel was beyond hope, and better to use her sword on him - all of that while Willow was probably putting her re-ensouling spell together. More recently, it was Doyle's unannounced arrival in Sunnydale, which had been followed by earnest insistence that Angel must go to L.A. and fulfill his fate.
Mixed messages much? Weren't these the same guys who'd dragged Angel in to watch her?
These Oracles might be the conduit beyond dimensions and what not, but everything points to the fact that they are living creatures - they must be, with their moods and their little whims - and all living creatures think alike. If they have the power to give back what belongs to her, and they refuse, then she'll threaten what everybody guards the most: their lives.
She's the Slayer.
And whoever believes she needs her powers to do it, didn't hear about her last birthday.
But she'll try to be polite first. "I'll just point out that they'd also want a solution if they suddenly went all limp and slow just because some demon had the bad idea to bleed all over them." She shudders at the memory. The thought of having Mohra bits in her, changing her, is enough to make her roll down the window, just in case her stomach loses the battle against such utter revulsion again. "It's wrong, Doyle."
He looks at her for a long moment. "Well, damn." The word comes along with the slam of his fist against the wheel. "You know what some of us would do to be all-human, right here, right now?"
She could tell Doyle that something has been destroyed inside her, that she doesn't move or feel the same. How can she be herself like this? And if the Mohra's blood really has regenerative powers, then why did she lose her powers at all? What is it that she's been regenerated from?
But Doyle is not one of hers, and there are secrets she can keep from him, too.
Instead she cocks and eyebrow and keeps her voice dry and level. "Well, why didn't you say so before? Let's find another of those and hope that this time its blood mixes with yours instead."
His expression turns wistful - just for a second. Then it clears out and he's focused on the road again.
"Say it," she prods after several minutes have passed. When he frowns at her, she gives him a small smile. "It's just the two of us, and if things don't go smoothly with your pals, you'll know more about what I'm capable of than I'm comfortable with. So - whatever it is you're thinking, I don't care why you believe I'll like you less for it. Spit it out."
Blue eyes settle on her, widened and a bit doubtful. "How did you know?"
"I'm Angel's girlfriend." She laughs. "I ace at broody-to-English translation."
He smiles at that, but still doesn't say anything as they pass a few more blocks.
Buffy shrugs. She tried. She's already reviewing the weapons she's brought with her - and how they could be used against higher beings - when Doyle starts speaking again.
"I'm afraid I would run," he says, so fast that the words almost trip into each other. "If I weren't what I am, that is. I think I would run." His hands grip the wheel with enough strength to leave dents, and his shoulders are hunched over as if he is attempting to escape into his own shirt after his confession.
A quick glance at him and Buffy decides to turn to the view out her window. Wouldn't want him to see her smile, after all. "This isn't the first time this has happened to me, you know." The smile vanishes so fast that she wonders if it had been there at all. Most days, she buries that memory as far as she can shove it down. Today it's been easy enough, what with her day starting with a demon attacking the mansion, ranting about prophecies as it did. From there, it's all gone further into freakish hell as the hours passed. Realizing that alien blood was changing her had been traumatic enough to make her forget without effort.
"It's not? How...?"
"Faith didn't tell you?" She's not surprised. Her friends are even more careful than she is about avoiding every mention of that day. "Well, she wasn't there for most of it anyway." And she's forgiven her for it; for all she knows, she wouldn't even have remembered to ask the other Slayer for help, anyway. "Long story short: I was shot with drugs and...." Her world ended that night. "...stuff happened. Broke with the Watcher's Council over it, too."
"Big stuff, then."
What an understatement. She still wakes up in a cold sweat when she thinks about it too much during the day. "Yeah." There's a reason to be telling all this, isn't there? "But before all of that, there I was. Learning that I couldn't carry my weapons or properly go on a patrol. Hell, I couldn't even scare a horny school boy. I was..."
"I was gonna say 'pathetic', but yeah. 'Normal' sounds a lot better. Especially when everybody suddenly started reminding you of all the normal things you can do now. You know, sun-friendly boyfriend and college and two-point-five kids. It's easy to be swept along when everybody is so happy for you."
"But you didn't do the sweeping."
"Maybe at first. Because, for the first time in years, I was free. I was too weak to train; I was too slow to catch the bus, much less a fleeing demon. Forget about facing one who was coming at me. I would need to leave the battlefield, at least the front lines. Indefinitely. I think that, for a moment there, I saw myself as a fifty-year-old. Sixty. Seventy. Raising hell in the nursing home with my crazy stories about that time I'd saved the world." She shakes her head. "But then... Imagine suddenly not being able to run, or lift your arms, or carry a briefcase to work. I had never felt so trapped before - and I'm counting the night as a medieval princess... which you know nothing about because it was before Faith's time. Sorry."
"It's all right. Xander told me." Doyle chuckles at that. "Thought he was pulling my leg."
"Your leg is safe, I promise." And Xander owes her. Making friends with Doyle in-between wooing and/or exchanging insults with Faith's assistant - or whatever Cordelia is calling herself these days - is great for the team, but telling him about one of the most embarrassing moments in Buffy's life is not. "But I'm talking about my last birthday - oh, yes, it happened on my birthday. January hates me." She shrugs. "I didn't quite understand until later, you know. Maybe I'd have gotten it a lot faster if... well, stuff hadn't happened. Big, bad stuff. But, when I did get it, long after the drugs wore off, I was okay with it. I'm the Slayer - and I'm not saying that the average human can't jump in and join the fun. God, just look at Cordelia and try to say that. I dare you."
"No, thanks," he mutters with uncharacteristic emphasis.
"Right. So, you see. I didn't run when I had the chance to run." And she still has that chance. If she ever asks the Council for another shot, Quentin Travers himself will hurry across the ocean to deliver it. Okay, not Travers; he probably still hasn't recovered from their last meeting. She turns her thoughts away from that sweet satisfaction and faces Doyle again. "I have a feeling you wouldn't waver even half as much as I did," she tells him, absolute conviction in her voice.
"Quite a vote of confidence, I say." He mulls over that for a bit. "Does that mean that you believe everything is as it's supposed to be? That you're meant to be a Slayer and I'm meant to be half-Brachen and so we should stay?"
"It does make a pretty argument for these Oracle guys, doesn't it? After all, if the big bosses upstairs didn't want me, they should just have passed me over when they came calling for a new girl on the job."
"They aren't too fond of you," he warns her, and at her surprised look he explains, "You did steal Angel from them."
She laughs at that. For all the times she and Angel argued about a possible move to LA, either together - her dad has infrequent attacks of conscience, after all; he would take her in if she asked - or Angel alone (not an option), neither of them had seen the aftereffects of Doyle's first visit in quite that way. "Did I? And they're holding a grudge against me for it?" She grins. "Oops."
"It's the Powers That Be, Buffy."
"Big 'oops'?" She shrugs it off. "I did convince Faith that evil lawyers were as exciting as a Hellmouth of her own, and that Cleveland's weather didn't hold a candle to California. That must count in my favor."
"I am in favor," he quips.
"You would." Buffy smirks knowingly. "What about we call it 'relocation of assets' instead. It sounds so much better than robbery."
"So Angel is an asset now?"
"A very good one." She has a saucy grin to accompany her answer, and an amused laugh at the face he makes.
"Don't ever explain that," he begs. A few moments later, Doyle has parked next to a post office and killed the engine. "You ready?"
She gets her weapons bag from the backseat, checks that the pretty silver knife that Willow had blessed over and over is on top, and nods. Even Anya agreed that it made a more than passable tribute.
"You don't need it all," Doyle says, eyeing the rather bulky bag in a disquieted manner.
"It's okay." She tries to make her smile as harmless as possible. "This is just in case Plan A doesn't work."
He must have a good inkling that she doesn't mean to have a variety of possible tributes in case they don't like the first one, because he suddenly freezes and groans. "And I thought Faith was too much trouble!"
Buffy laughs, a true laugh. "Well. Now you know why Slayers never came in pairs."
"No," he grits out as he starts the ritual to open the portal. "Now I know why Angel didn't come along."
"Oh, don't worry. He knows I'm counting on him as Plan C-"
Doyle closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. Or perhaps it's a whimper. "I'm doomed."
"-and if things look too bad, he'll bring Faith along." she continues, merciless. "Or maybe he'll call her anyway. She'll never stop complaining otherwise."
This time there's no doubt.
A whimper it is.
eight months ago
"Thanks for the dance, kind sir," Buffy says with a little grin and a deep curtsey.
He bows and, as he's rising, winks at her with exaggerated charm. "My pleasure, duchess."
The couple next to them laugh at their antics, but she doesn't care.
Xander doesn't even seem to notice, too busy looking over her shoulder for a glimpse of dark hair and tanned skin. His official date is Faith - who said yes in a weak moment of silly femininity, as she'll swear to anyone who'll listen, her date included - but Xander has eyes only for his off-again girlfriend tonight.
Ah, well. She managed to distract him for a whole song. It's Willow's turn next. "Who broke up with whom this time?"
At the question, he just glances down at the floor and looks miserable.
Buffy clucks at him and pats his arm. "You have no idea, huh?"
His shoulders shrug. "There was a lot of screaming."
"No doubt." She takes his elbow and steers him off the dance floor toward their friends. Willow takes a look at them and, after a quick whisper in Oz's ear, comes to meet Xander mid-way and ask him for a dance. "Just to un-fluke formal clothes forever," she tells Xander low enough that Buffy knows she wasn't supposed to listen - not that she understands why the both of them suddenly break into laughter before heading back to join the other couples.
Buffy shakes her head and walks to her own date. "Is this one still too much for you?"
Faking a pout, she straightens his jacket - not that it was in any way wrinkled before, but any excuse to come closer to him is a good excuse. "I'll have to bribe the DJ into something slower, then."
"Or you could ask," Oz pipes in from the table their group had claimed.
"Stop with the ethical. It's prom night; I'm supposed to be wild and reckless and immature." Oz raises an eyebrow that manages to say a lot more than the small grin Angel is trying to hide. "I can be wild!"
Oz shrugs. "You saved the guy from 'crazy-ass murderous druggies' outside the Bronze last month. He'll play the Macarena five times in a row if you ask."
Five minutes later, she is back in Angel's arms, swaying to a lazy, unhurried rhythm, while Erik the DJ ignores the bulk of the protests - mostly from unattached students, poor losers - and slots in a third and a fourth slow song in his must-have list for the night.
"Four dances in one night. Page Guinness, tonight is as record-breaking as it comes," Buffy says when her last request is almost over. She knows that she's wearing a huge grin and every jealous glance thrown her way just adds to her glee. They have been seen at the Bronze, of course, but casual dates at the local club is nothing compared to stepping into the room on his arm. She's sure that half the girls swooned when he kissed her in front of the crowd when she came back with her award. "I don't think I want it to end."
He holds her a little bit tighter.
"Angel.... Can I stay with you tonight?"
He gazes down at her, confused. "You were planning to go somewhere else?"
"No." She leans her cheek against him, looking away from him. If he denies this request, she doesn't want him to see her reaction. "Can I stay with you tonight?" The moment he understands her meaning it's as if they're suddenly miles apart. "Don't say it's too dangerous. You know it isn't."
It's not. There's a reason they're so much more comfortable around each other than earlier in the year. Once her stay in Sunnydale was definitive, there were several housing options. She told her father she'd crash at the Rosenbergs' until she moved to the college dorms, and had Willow tell her parents that Buffy's boyfriend had asked her to move in with him.
The only one who was surprised was Angel himself. She had no idea why; she'd already spent most nights with him. And before she moved to one of the guest rooms, she spent those nights in his bed.
She remembers most of it. The times he washed her sweat away with a warm wet cloth, murmuring love words as he did it. The times she woke up pressed under him, scared of everything except his weight above her. She remembers touching him, hesitant, half-awake and maybe a tad feverish the first time, growing bold as the nights passed and he didn't quite stop her. She remembers being touched, being held, being kissed until her lips felt heavy and then had those same lips travel down her throat, across her breasts, nursing at her nipples and continue down, down, down until she'd forgotten what had driven her to her lover's bed in the first place, or why he shouldn't be her lover at all.
She remembers why she moved to that guest room, too.
Some nights she swears she can still feel him so deep within her that it should be impossible to stand separate again.
He took flight the next morning, of course. Though at least he'd waited until she was awake and reassured she hadn't killed him before disappearing for almost a week.
"It's dangerous enough," he answers at last.
But there's no finality in his voice.
There's no happiness either, but she'll take what she can. It's selfish, she knows. It would probably be better if each went their own way. God knows the world has thrown them enough hints on that. But she loves him, damn it, and unless he's the one walking away she'll never let go.
"I want to be with you. Is that so bad?"
He chuckles. It's a sad sound. "It shouldn't be."
"You're not saying 'no'." At his look, the small smile she mustered up vanishes. "...and I'm pushing. Sorry."
"Do you hate me now?"
He is shaking his head even before she finishes the question.
The song is over and they're the only couple standing still on the dance floor, amid dozens of teenagers bobbing enthusiastically to the music. Buffy doesn't care. Her classmates have just confessed to having known she was different all this time; they can handle one more piece of evidence.
"You're afraid," she realizes.
He would be. He has a lot more to lose, after all.
Buffy lets her arms go around him, takes a second to focus on the stillness of him in the noise that surrounds them. She likes being this close to him; she likes knowing that beyond the silence of his heart, there's warmth and safety and love - all meant for her, only for her.
Of course she wants to get even closer.
"I'm sorry," she tells him, knowing that she has to step away.
She swore to herself that she would take what she could. If this is it, it's still a thousand times better than what she had a year ago.
Angel won't let go, though. "I should have stayed away."
"I would have hunted you down-" She was ready to do it, too. "-and I'd have been pissed when I found you."
"Meaning you weren't when I came back?"
She cringes at the memory of their fight at his return. They hadn't spoken to each other for days afterwards, yet they'd stayed under the same roof. That's how bad they are at staying apart. "Worse."
"Thought so." He smiles at her answer and starts to lead her away; she assumes they're going back to her friends. When she sees the gym doors instead, she turns to him, suddenly uncertain. "Are we...?"
"We are taking it slow," he tells her. If he had any blood circulation, his face would be pale. "Very slow."
"And we're going to be patient."
"And if you ever -"
"Angel?" She grasps his chin and lowers it until he's looking her in the eye. "Take me home."
Hours later she's lying next to him, the most relaxed she's been in weeks. Skin-to-skin, even mostly skin-to-skin is an experience she wants to repeat over and over and never stop. He caresses her hair when she tells him so.
"Aren't you afraid?" he asks, dropping kisses along the rim of her earlobe.
She thinks of her choices, all the other things she could be doing instead. She could stop tempting fate; she should do that, just rise away from his arms and walk away. She could keep pretending they're only friends, that what happened in those weeks after her birthday was just because of her grief. She could follow her mother's dream for her, try to make as normal a life as she can, she can ask Angel to keep his distance and give her the space she needs to fall in love again. She may even manage it, find someone else who doesn't need heavy curtains and bold manoeuvres to get in his bed.
But then she wouldn't be here, with the one person who will not leave her behind.
Wherever life leads her, she can trust him to walk at her side. They will grow together. Hell, they already have.
Why would she fear that?
"Afraid?" She turns her head until she can kiss him. His lips, his cheeks, his nose. They are both smiling when she says, "Not when I'm with you."
a year ago
She crashes into him as soon as he opens the door.
She has run all the way to his doorstep and she's never been this tired before. Is she still crying? Is she really awake?
How can this whole day not be a nightmare?
She was too late.
She doesn't know as she's crossing the threshold into an abandoned boarding house that has become the grounds for a twisted rite of passage, but it was already too late.
"Buffy?" He is half-carrying her to the couch, settling her against him. "Hey, love. What happened?"
"I'm cold," she whimpers, burrowing closer to him.
He doesn't point out the contradiction of seeking warmth against his body, neither does he offer to bring her a blanket or anything as asinine. "Okay." He drapes his arms around her and holds on, lets her sniffle all over his t-shirt and doesn't attempt to dry her tears or make her explain herself. "It's okay, darling. You're with me."
Even to her blunted senses, the room screams of madness and death. She spots the glass of water first, that first seed of a viable plan; she doesn't discover the body until she's already reached into her bag for the needed vial. A glimpse of legs half-hidden behind the furniture, a toppled chair, bloodstained ropes.
A pair of shoes too familiar to ignore.
The air itself seems to freeze around her. It's impossible to think, impossible to breathe.
She manages one word, though.
From that moment until Giles breaks in, a smirking stranger right behind him, it's all a blank. Buffy will never remember spilling the water into a corner, or pouring the holy water instead. She will never remember waiting for it all to end, or what her feelings were as the enemy boasted having trapped her, or when he realized that he'd doomed himself with a drink.
But she'll hear her own voice for weeks and months afterwards, tiny and disbelieving.
One word, and she will never be the same again.
At some point, a phone starts ringing in the background.
There is a handful of people who have Angel's number, and only one of them who would know why she is at the Crawford mansion instead of tucked in bed at her home.
Giles must have already dealt with the police and the ambulance, then.
"Don't pick up," she says, even though Angel hasn't made a move.
This was supposed to be her battleground. Hers. If somebody must fall, it should have been her.
Even if it were a stranger's body she'd just discovered, the death count would still be one too high.
But it's not a stranger, is it?
Please, let it be. Please.
Somehow, she moves closer.
She needs to see the face.
She needs to make sure.
She remembers pushing Giles aside, drawing back her fist and swinging around at the last second to catch the other man in the face. She may be naÔve, but she's not stupid; Giles would never have done this unless someone pushed him into it, someone higher up the chain of command in the one organization that was supposed to have her back. She may have broken with the Council, too, or perhaps she only thought about it. She definitely is doing it, consequences be damned.
"I want to stay." She shifts until her nose is pressed against Angel's shoulder. She doesn't want to remember anymore, nor think of consequences, not tonight. He's strong enough to hold back everything until she's ready to face her life again. "Can I stay here tonight?"
It was never supposed to be this way.
Has she really come into a room just to find this?
He hesitates for a second; there are questions he wants to ask, she knows, all of them with answers she can't voice. Not now. Not yet.
"We clean those wounds first," he tells her, tracing the slash across her forehead.
She nods, only now starting to feel the burn of it. She has no recollection of being struck hard enough to draw blood. "Okay."
"And tomorrow we'll talk."
"Sleep first, though. Just a little," he coaxes when she shakes her head. He looks so worried she doesn't have the heart to tell him she's afraid of what she'll see when she closes her eyes. Besides, the moment she dozes off, he'll be making calls of his own.
Maybe it's better that way.
"Good." At least he doesn't try to rise from the couch. "I'll take care of everything else."
She hides her face into his shirt, needing the moment to find her voice. Little does he know that he's done all he can already. "Thanks for letting me stay."
"Sleep, Buffy. Whatever it is, I'll still love you."
His words bring out the first smile of the rest of her life. It's small, but it's there. "Love you, too."