SUMMARY: post-NFA. Her worst wounds were invisible.
THANK YOU: to Kairos, Ares, Sharon, and Dana for checking the first draft (and telling me it was readable!).
Her worst wounds hadn't come at the bottom of the longest fall, or at the tip of her own stake puncturing her, or in the pain under a vampire's fangs.
Her worst wounds were invisible, shoved into the bitterest part of her heart and festering there. She'd grown used to them, grown around them, so many years together. Dreams, so many dreams. All broken, all impossible, all….
All here. Now.
"Are you alright with this?" Giles asks.
She shrugs. "I have a choice?"
He doesn't stay long. He doesn't stay at all.
He fights. He wins. He leaves.
(She helps. That's why she came, isn't it?)
He doesn't say goodbye.
That week, she dreams she's in a sewer, crying because he's leaving her.
When she wakes up, she doesn't remember being that girl anymore, can't understand her. How had she managed to keep so many hopes alive to that point? How had she managed to put her heart together enough that it could be broken again?
She'd learned an important lesson, that day: being vulnerable is her own damn fault.
"I don't mind," she tells her friends the next month, after Giles is done relaying the message. "The enemy of my enemy, isn't it?"
"Not that Angel's our enemy," Willow pipes in, and then pales at her reaction.
No. For all they hated him, Angel was never their enemy, was he?
The crossbow bolt she was sharpening stays half-buried in the table next to her.
Nobody questions her willingness again.
He thanks her for coming.
He leads her into the demon's lair.
"You could have killed this one yourself," she says, somewhat annoyed that the trip was longer than the hunt.
From the floor, he stares up at her. "You really think so?" His leg is now a clawed up mess, and if he were alive, she'd worry about consequences. "What happened to our fighting together?" he laughs, "Time was, it never got worse than a scratch."
Her hand, which was reaching out to help him onto his feet, pauses for a moment. "Oh." She helps him up anyway. "I'm...."
But she's not sorry. Not at all.
It took too long to learn the difference between guilt and fate, and she's not going back.
He tries to spare her his full weight, doesn't succeed. Shoulder to shoulder by necessity, his chuckle is an unwelcome explosion in her ear. "No, Buffy. You're not."
Maybe he learned the same lesson, she thinks as they take slow steps down to the road. "Where am I supposed to leave you?"
He doesn't act surprised that she's commandeered his car, and it strikes her that he doesn't know the stories of her at the wheel. "Home," he answers.
Of course. Home. Where else?
That week, she dreams of being rejected.
She hadn't understood. Not yet.
Trapped in her dream, she still doesn't.
(a dulcet choir of pretty little birdies)
One night, he couldn't stop loving her.
The next day, he couldn't love her enough.
Had she ever really been that innocent?
"Again?" Xander asks from her doorstep, watching her pack.
"Again," she confirms.
His good eye studies her. Sometimes she thinks that being forced to focus has made him look deeper than ever before. Dawn swears that's how he noticed her, and once the shock passed, Buffy believed her. Wasn't it Xander who had always a quick read on her? Even when he couldn't understand, even when he disagreed and railed against her decisions, Xander had known what moved her.
But everyone else knows her moves now. Her increasingly frequent departures, a bag full of weapons and a handful of clean clothes on her way to save the world... (Save a vampire, some of the girls sneer in the hallway. They are one big happy family, after all this time, and she's becoming the black sheep. She wouldn't mind if she thought it was just Council conditioning, their tales of what a Slayer could/should/must be. But the girls are judging her not by her past, but by the now).
Everyone knows what, and when, and how.
It is Xander who must delve deeper, isn't it? "Why?"
Why then? Why now? Why him?
She slams her case shut. "Xander, don't."
He doesn't. But he stays at her doorstep and stops her for a hug. "When you come back, we'll talk," he tells her. "Or I'm bringing Dawn in," and for all that it's a mock-threat, it is also for real.
She hugs him back (used to be, that was enough between them); but doesn't agree to anything.
"Hi, Buffy," he says. The first time he held out a hand, her only reaction was to drop her bag in it. Shaking hands, such an alien concept between them. He never made a comment, and now wordlessly shoulders her luggage and walks her out of the airport.
On the drive to the woods, he starts casually. "Remember when baby Luith claws messed up my leg? I found the parents." He spares her a look. "If you have to drive again, knock me out first."
She almost smiles back, but he is already looking ahead. For once, she wishes it will be an easy kill again.
They are both covered in slime and mud, their knees and elbows skinned and a scratch across his cheek that would scar on living flesh. "Great," she spits out a chunk of... something she doesn't want to recognize. "Family reunion."
He grunts, rolls from under another demon's swipe.
In the end, it is he who kills most of the demons. She finishes off her side of the cavern in time to see him pull his sword back and then thrust it forward into a demon's stomach. If it weren't for the amount of time they've spent together, she tells herself later, the vision - the memory - would have never come to her.
There are no walls around them, no openmouthed statue, and no portal swirling and swirling and taking everything... Stop. Later, she will swear to herself that it was the exhaustion getting to her. But in that moment, she turns on her heel before the demon's body falls on the ground, and marches outside.
"Are you hurt?"
She shakes her head.
"But you aren't okay."
Damn him for knowing that. "I have three hours worth of yuck on me," she answers at last. Her hair is proof enough, she thinks, and the shudder is not at all faked. "Of course I'm not okay."
Damn him twice for not knowing better.
"My place is closer than your hotel." Half an hour difference - she made sure of that, just in case she'd be tempted to visit where she hadn't been invited. Not until now. "You can borrow the shower," he offers.
He's got lilac-scented shampoo in his cabinet, one of her less favorite kinds, and not in a brand she'd ever used.
This is home.
(Figures. She is too late even when she never meant to get there.)
"Next time, I think I'll wait," she says when she comes out.
He nods again, and maybe he does know better because they exchange no words on the drive to her hotel.
He drives away before she can tell him goodbye.
That week, she dreams of betrayal.
She'd killed him that night. Chosen the world over him.
He'd hit her that day. Chosen her enemy over her.
(It was fair.)
But she didn't think that until much later.
When it becomes obvious whose call Giles is answering, she walks out of the room.
It's too late.
"You're really not going?" Dawn asks as she walks into the room, an expression she'd last seen on her mother's face.
Joyce Summers had been a difficult woman to disappoint, but she knows that despite her mother's protests, she'd managed to do that more than once. Like then, she reminds herself of her reasons. Pride, she tells herself again, is not one of them. "I'm really not going," she says.
"He would come if you asked."
Fair is fair. Isn't it?
It is, she knows. "Damn."
He smiles at her.
She doesn't smile back.
"Is something wrong?"
She doesn't answer.
"I don't know what's bugging you, Buffy. But whatever it is, let it go. I called because you all said I could, that sending backup for me was better than sending unprepared girls into the situations I keep walking in." He smirks at that, as if finding himself in one tight spot after another is funny. Maybe it is now. What does she know about him anymore? "I call, you come," he continues. "It works. You help me, and I want to help you, you know. I want for us to work together. I want to fight at your side, because you are the best, and I," The smirk widens. "I can keep up. I want for this to keep working. I want...."
She doesn't stop the words on her tongue: "I don't."
He looks as if she had slapped him.
"This isn't working," she treads on, waving between the two of them. "Every time we win? Anyone could have done it. You aren't special, and I sure as hell am not special anymore. Anything else is playing pretend. All some sort of..." Freak show. "Some sort of act." She hastens to replace the memory with the present. "Just an act, Angel. One where we're still heroes."
He stays quiet for a long time.
She doesn't apologize, doesn't pretend it's not what it is.
"You're mad at me," he finally says, in a tone that indicates he's wondering at her reasons.
"Whatever," she answers. "It's late now."
They both pretend she needs to hurry to catch her flight.
This time, she chooses not to say goodbye. Some things don't need words.
That week, she dreams of sitting at her mother's grave.
She was waiting for him, and not expecting him to come up at all.
She was trusting him, just this once, just for this, and was amazed that she still could.
(Such a fragile thing, trust. So vulnerable.)
For the first time, she wakes up crying.
Some things don't need words. They need billboards, TV ads, and satellites spreading the message through the universe.
He calls again.
"I could send Faith," Giles says.
When Faith comes back, she throws her door open and stalks inside. "You are the densest woman on the face of the earth, B."
"Of course you don't," Faith despairs. "That's the whole point of it!"
No. The whole point of it was…
He has his home.
She has her family.
Maybe this is Fate's version of fairness.
That week, she dreams of standing at the beach.
"If I were blind…."
But he isn't.
And she isn't.
And they never quite found each other again.
"You came," he sounds surprised.
She shrugs. "The younger girls still think you'll turn on us, and Faith left a note on the fridge that she'd grabbed Wood and ran off for vacation time. That left Kennedy or me. Willow...." 'You and Faith are weird after you're with him, and kind of meaner,' the redhead said, 'Angel's a bad influence on Slayers, so leave my girlfriend out of it.' Buffy smiles, if only because it had been worth seeing her friend's resolve face dusted off and back in business. "Willow vetoed that one."
"But she let you come."
Actually…. But he doesn't need to know that. "I came. I'd think that's the important part."
He gives her a look. "Willow doesn't really like me, does she?"
"Are we killing something or playing Twenty Questions?" she snaps, glaring up at him.
After stories about the Hellmouth leaked through the surviving demons, not many stand up to her when she's so obviously upset.
He has the nerve to grin back. "Killing, of course." He points her to the entrance of the nest. "You can go first, since you're still mad. Better chance of survival that way - for me."
Sometimes, she thinks there's no shame left in him.
But there's no hint of lilac left in his bathroom either.
That week, she dreams of coming back to life. It's the first time. No coffin, no terror - she doesn't even remember those. Instead she is coming to her feet as soon as she wakes up, and Angel is there.
It's not until she wakes up that she remembers that Xander was there, too.
"The details Angel has sent are reminding me of something…" Giles says, glasses ready to be rubbed clean and with that tone of voice that has never meant vacation time for a Slayer. His brow furrows, making wrinkles that are yet unfamiliar to them. "Maybe in the Core Chronicles?"
"I'll check the Book of Nero," Willow says.
Xander shrugs. "Research time, there we go." He smiles. "Feels like old times, doesn't it?"
It's the end of the world.
(Of course it is)
When she calls, he comes.
That week, she can't sleep deeply enough to dream.
He's in the house, too. In one of the basement rooms.
No, she cannot sleep well at all.
She finds Dawn on her bed, folding the pieces she'd meant to pack after dinner. "You've always been a late packer, Buffy," her sister laughs.
"And yet you're the one who's fifteen minutes late everywhere."
Dawn shrugs, folds another pair of jeans over her lap. "Xander loves me anyway."
She is not touching that statement. Xander does love Dawn, though. Maybe that's why she's not saying anything.
"You know, sis. You believed in me when I made my choice." Why are they still talking about her little sister and her best friend? The less she knows, the better she sleeps. Then Dawn looks her in the eye, and she knows why. "I just wanted you to know. Whatever you choose, I'll believe in you, too."
He's got a new weapon for her, a set of daggers that fit in her hand with the ease of a stake carved by herself.
"I didn't see any like these at your place," he explains. "They have a better balance than the ones you're using." When she's about to try the first out, he catches her arm to stop her. He's not letting go, and she lets it happen. "Some would say they are the best in this dimension," he finishes with a meaningful look.
"Thanks," she says. Maybe she even blushes.
If he were able, he'd be the one blushing later that night. His gift comes in handy, as her last throw probably saves his life.
"Thanks," he says.
It's a beginning.
They are finding their balance again.
That week, she dreams of a lost ring, a lost necklace.
The daggers are silver, too.
Willow gives her a long look, woman to woman. "You are dressed for a date."
She rolls her eyes. "Might as well get some use out of these clothes. 'S not as if I go out when I'm not killing something."
"You're killing several somethings with Angel."
Willow shakes her head. "That won't work with me, you know."
"Then trust me. I know what I'm doing."
"I wish I believed you." When Buffy turns around and starts her way out, Willow follows her. "I'm trying, Buffy. I am. But I'm scared for you."
"You're my best friend. That's what best friends do."
Willow looks down. "No. It's not." When she raises her head, she is smiling as sincerely as she is able to. "As your best friend, I have to trust you."
"Whatever I choose?"
There is a pause before she nods, but it's a minimal one. "But if hurts you, I'm going after him."
"You look beautiful," he says at the end of the night, "I'll see you next time the world almost ends?"
"Actually." She plays with the strap of her weapons bag. "You mentioned that there were sights around here."
She leaves the bag in the backseat and looks him in the eye. "Sounds interesting."
He laughs, but it isn't a mean sound.
"It does!" But she is smiling, too. "Mind driving me?"
"I'm not sure you really want that." When she moves to recover her belongings, put them back between them, he captures her wrist. "I mean, I'm told they look better in daylight."
When he laughs this time, he is laughing at all the miscommunications they'll have. It's okay. So is she. For all they loved, for all they fought and lost, they never had the time to learn the little things.
"Stay with me," he says.
When he offers her the couch, she doesn't say no. The next night, when he offers to take the couch instead, she doesn't say no either.
Nobody is sleeping on the floor this time.
They don't kiss goodbye.
It tastes more like 'hello'.
That week, she dreams they are dancing for the first time.
"You are mine," she doesn't tell the cross-shaped scar on his chest.
He flicks the silver chain around her neck, and doesn't need to state the obvious.
"I don't mean to be blunt," Giles says as he motions her to close his office door. "But what about Angel's curse?"
The scent of lilacs still bothers her. "Still there."
He gives her a look best suited to the times they were still teenage Slayer and wise Watcher. "We all hope that it will stay there," he starts, and she knows he's being sincere. "But are you ready to face the consequences if it doesn't?"
She takes a seat, a desk separating them. "What if I said no?"
"If, Giles. What then?"
"Well." He takes off his glasses, and there is comfort in the familiar gesture. "I would have to.... The Council would have to... deal. With him. It would be...." The lens threatens to crack between his fingers. Giles puts his glasses back on, and finishes his thought in one breath. "It would be final, Buffy. No more playing with innocent lives just because Angel has helped us. I'm sure even Angel -"
"That's right," Buffy tells him, her hands clenched around the chair's arms. "Angel says the exact same thing. He's terrified that he'll go after his son first - or second, I guess, since I'd be the one closest by." She shakes her head. "Do you think I want to die like that?"
Giles looks down at his steepled hands before he meets her eye. "I imagine not."
"Of course not. And I'd never let him go through that. I love him, Giles, and I know better this time." Her grasp loosens from around the leather-covered arms, and neither makes a comment about their bent shape. She stands up again, and for once there is a subject where she feels wiser than him. "I'm the one risking everything - everything but the world. I think we can all agree that one Slayer isn't that special anymore -"
"Not in the big picture, Giles." Her grin gives him pause. "And that's amazing. Really, it is. Because now I can focus on something special to me."
His smile is reluctant, but honest. "Angel is that something, I gather."
"Today, he is, and probably tomorrow. After that..." Trust. Hope. Life, even if that's a long shot. "Anything can happen."
"Anything?" Giles chuckles. "If someone can manage that, it will be you."
That week, she dreams she goes to sleep with him at her side.
When she wakes up, he is still there.
"I've been dreaming of this," she tells him.
He is smiling. "So have I."
"Are you happy?" Xander asks as he lugs her smaller suitcase down the hallways.
She is waiting at the top of the stairs, the bigger suitcase at her side. "I thought I was glowing. You've been complaining about that for months already."
"You are. I did," he admits. "You always got weird when you came back, but this time… are you sure?"
"You are leaving, Buffy."
"And you said you'd help carry my bags downstairs," she says, trying not to smirk at the transparency of his excuse.
Xander is not deterred. "You are leaving to go with Angel."
She grins. "That'd be the point of it, yes."
He doesn't hide a quick glance to her neck. "He's hurt you before."
Xander doesn't know half of it. The scar at her neck is but proof he was there, that she once loved him. That scar is probably one of her best memories of him. But the hurt she carries is deeper than that; wounds that never healed, that probably never will.
But she is willing to try.
And he is willing to try.
And it doesn't matter that blindness was never a real factor. They'd been thrown into the darkness, and never quite quit looking for each other. If they've proven useless at finding each other - why not try finding the middle ground between them?
"Yes, he's hurt me. I can hurt him back now," she confesses. "Better than ever before."
Xander doesn't react as expected. "Somehow, that doesn't make me happier." He gives a sad shrug. "Guess we did grow up, huh?"
He wags a playful finger at her. "It's just that some of us didn't grow out of some habits."
She doesn't react as expected, either. "Forget I'm Dawn's sister -"
"A very strong, temperamental sister," Xander mumbles.
" - and tell me, if Anya came back, wouldn't you want to - I don't know. See her. Talk to her. Understand where it all went wrong."
"Is that why you always went when he asked?"
She laughs. "And he always had the most interesting demons to kill."
"Ah. The way to a Slayer's heart," Xander comments with a knowing grin. "For Dawn, it's dinner in the city, good movies, and some jewelry. You know. Seems to me Angel got the cheaper Summers - is it too late to trade?"
Buffy laughs. "Aw, Xand. If you'd only said something last week!"
When she can't keep from giggling, Xander shakes his head and laughs too. "Last week - as if! A thousand weeks, it's more like."
"A thousand and one," Buffy agrees.
Several Weeks Later
Apparently, subtlety is not a Summers trait. Dawn cuts through their usual conversation, and in her most serious voice asks, "Are you happy?"
Buffy gives a glance at her cell phone, as if her sister were beside her instead of miles away. For months, Dawn had been the main reason she didn't have all her friends descending on her new home. Dawn kept their questions at bay, and teased out answers Buffy wouldn’t otherwise offer.
"Did you hear me, Buffy?"
Now someone was asking the right question.
"So...." Dawn sounds impatient now. Another Summers characteristic, Buffy knows. "Are you? Happy, I mean?"
"I already answered." Buffy laughs. Her worst wounds hadn't come at the bottom of the longest fall, or at the tip of her own stake puncturing her, or the pain under a vampire's fangs. Her worst wounds were invisible; it made sense that the healing would be just as imperceptible. "Yes, Dawn. Yes. I am."