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Summary: Buffy has always walked in the dark. But returning to the Council, she feels trapped by the shadows of her past.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
BtVS/AtS Non-Crossover > Dark > Buffy-CenteredtigerlilyFR15316,5845223,34211 Apr 1012 Apr 10Yes

Part One: The Widening Gyre

Disclaimer: BtVS characters and canon are the property of Joss Whedon/Mutant Enemy. No profit is being made from this story - I'm just playing in their sandbox.

Thanks to Samarkand for advice, nitpicking and general beta awesome. :)

Comments/concrit welcomed and appreciated.

A tower of boxes appears in the doorway, heaving and grunting and muttering words that have no place amongst the subtle elegance of the apartment.

“You’re gonna break a nail,” Buffy warns with a grin, watching as the pile of boxes quivers and lowers and turns into something Giles-shaped. A sweating, dust-covered Giles. Which would be kind of hot if he wasn’t so… Giles. He rolls his eyes behind his glasses, but there’s no real exasperation in the gesture. His eyes find hers and hold her gaze.

“When you offered to assist me with moving, I was under the impression that you would actually – ”

“Assist?” Buffy supplies. “Maybe I just like watching you do the heavy lifting for once.”

His glare is so dry it could turn the Nile to dust. They freeze there – Buffy not moving from her position half-sprawled on the bed, Giles breathing heavily. She counts silently in her head.

One… Two… Three…

She’s barely even made it to four before his eyes crinkle up at the corners. Buffy pushes up with her elbows and bounces a little on the edge of the bare mattress, unable to hide her grin.

“First impressions can be deceiving, y’know.”

“Had I not learnt that a long time ago,” he replies with a chuckle, “I would have packed up and caught the first flight back to England the minute a teenage girl in a short skirt and white sweater first pushed through the library doors and started nattering about Neiman Marcus and last month’s hair.”

Buffy just shrugs and takes the stack from him as though it weighs nothing. “What can I say?” she says brightly, “I’m just way too loveable.”

“You do grow on a person,” he says fondly, turning to exit the room and collect another load. He looks back at her, his eyes sparkling with mirth. “Like mould, or a particularly rare kind of fungus.”

“Hey!” she protests to his retreating back, her voice raised over his laughter. “Quit it with the likening me to gross slimy things.” The bright lights in the hallway cast a warm golden glow over the ornate wooden panelling and piles of boxes as other members of what they’re temporarily calling the New Council begin to make the empty apartments their own.

“Besides,” Buffy calls triumphantly as a thought occurs to her. “There are good kinds of mould too. You meant it in the penicillin-y way, right?”

A passing Watcher stops to stare and Buffy fights the urge to stick out her tongue. Co-founders of major international organisations can’t afford to stoop to childish behaviour. There are examples to be set and lines to be drawn.

She does it anyway, then looks around the living room with a practiced eye. It’s not quite ‘Giles’ yet, but with a bit of work and a whole lot of books and old-looking furniture, she can totally see him being at home here. And it’s not a converted shipping container, a battered school bus, or a crappy motel room off a no-name highway, so they’re moving in the right direction. Even if they haven’t quite figured out the path yet.

“We did okay, Watcher-Mine,” she says into the possibility-laden space.


Giles is packing.

If that’s even the right word for what he’s doing. There’s nothing methodical or organised – or even particularly colour co-ordinated – about what’s going in the suitcase, which could so come back and bite him in the butt later. If he cared about those kind of things.

Buffy can’t see his face from her spot in the shadows just outside his doorway, but from the way he’s moving – like he’s too cold to feel his limbs – it’s probably a pretty safe bet that he’s not in a fashion-conscious place right now. His cell phone lays open on the edge of the bed, probably forgotten in the midst of his packing storm.

She wonders where he’s jetting off to this time – Nairobi, perhaps, or maybe New Zealand. Word is there are some seriously crazy things going down there in the next couple days, apocalypse-grade badness, which has the Asia-Pacific field office good and flustered. There aren’t any Slayers stationed in New Zealand, not since Ngaiire got cornered by –

Not since Ngaiire.

Last she heard, Faith was on her way over there with her team to lend a hand. Knowing Faith, a hand attached to something shiny, pointy and built to inflict maximum damage.

The thought of it makes her grin unexpectedly. Hot chicks with superpowers, indeed. The happy slips from her face just as quickly as it appeared, and – oddly enough – she imagines it puddling somewhere down around her feet. Her toes are suddenly cold inside her stylish-yet-totally-unaffordable calfskin boots, like she’s been trudging through the snow for hours and it’s only just now starting to creep up through the soles of the expensive footwear that someone in the Accounts department will probably make her return later.

Giles is packing, and each sweater or shirt or – pause for a moment of ‘eww’ - underwear that makes the cut is like a slap to the face. Giles isn’t meant to leave, not right now, not like this.

The cell buzzes silently, but he ignores it. He stumbles on the lip of the Persian rug, and Buffy has to fight the urge to reach out and steady him, but somehow he maintains his balance without her help, bending forward as if to restore his equilibrium.

He looks impossibly old with his shoulders all hunched like that, like all the world’s a stadium and he’s gloveless in the middle of the ring, muscles coiled and waiting for the next crushing blow to rain down. Moving from dresser to bed and back again, armfuls of soft cotton and wool heaped in his arms haphazardly. Her eyes stray to the suitcase stretched over the bed. Half full or half empty, Buffy can’t tell which.

She’s pretty sure it doesn’t matter either way.

The unknown caller gets relegated to voicemail, a single low beep interrupting her train of thought.

She watches him for a long moment, biting her lower lip. She can’t remember feeling this uncertain since she was a teenager. Standing in a graveyard, bright clothes saccharine-sweet against the gloomy darkness, shifting her weight impatiently as Merrick tried to tell her this or that. Tried to impart some great wisdom that might one day save her life, and damned himself in doing so.

The skin on the back of her neck prickles uncomfortably and Buffy whirls in a blur of movement and intent, searching the shadows for what turns out to be a whole lot of nothing. Just more and more velvety darkness, and she’ll really have to speak to someone about getting those broken bulbs fixed soon.

It’s not like the Coalition is hard up for cash or anything. Giles finagled it so that they not only had access to the former Council’s sizable assets but some kind of support from the British government as well. Sort of a ‘you keep the monsters in the closet and we’ll keep channelling taxpayer funds your way’ type deal. Buffy’s never been one for the financial side of things – other than her two-year foray into the treacherous waters of home account management, which taught her the innate value of careful budgeting… or just delegating such things to the math nerds – so she pretty much stays out of it. She might have to break that vow in the pursuit of decent lighting, though. Some things you just can’t skimp on.

It’s gloomier than a B-grade horror movie in here, and she can’t believe that Giles can see properly in the half-light when he’s walking around, glasses or no.

If things were different between them, she’d stride in, shoot him a quick smile and tease him for being a klutz, pretend to add it to the tally of almost-concussions. As it is, Buffy stays in the doorway and waits. For what, she’s not exactly sure.

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. She wonders why he doesn’t answer the call, but doesn’t dare do it for him. Beep. Another message joins the first.

Another armful of Giles-things joins the growing pile in the suitcase.

The words are out before she can bite them back, a touch more petulant than she’d like to be.

“Where are you going?”

Giles doesn’t stop moving, doesn’t look in her direction, but his shoulders redefine the meaning of ‘stiff’ as he continues to rifle through the dresser drawer. The child inside her wants to stamp her foot, wants to demand that he look at her. If things were different, she might have.

But this is how it is now, so she doesn’t stamp, and he doesn’t stop, and they hang spinning there like flies in a web, suspended in the heavy silence for endless aching moments. Finally he sighs and splays his right hand out flat on the knotted wooden surface of the dresser, the silvery burn scars catching the light in a way that’s heartbreaking and beautiful
all at once.

Flies in a web.

“You can’t stay here,” he says quietly, resignedly. “You’re needed elsewhere.”

It’s only the Slayer reflexes that keep her from rocking back on her heels like she’s been shot. He won’t even look at her, but his fingertips are white where they’re pressed into the grain of the wood. All save for his pinkie, which rests twisted and ever-motionless on the surface. Buffy’s heart twists painfully in her chest at the sight of it.

“Don’t worry,” she snaps bitterly, each word a poisoned dagger aimed to wound. “I’m channelling Faith this week. Get none, get gone.”

That – of all things, that - gets his attention. Not in a way where he’s actually meeting her eye, but it’s kinda hard to tell whether he’s trying to or not since she’s trying to memorise the pattern in the rug. Rich reds tangle and spill over into buttery gold and nut-brown, so closely woven that you can hardly tell where one colour ends and another begins.
It reminds her of something she hasn’t seen for a while, a whispered memory prodding insistently in the back of her mind.

Tangled limbs and laughter. It slips through her fingers just as she’s sure she’s figured it out. Her disappointed sigh echoes in the silence. There’s something she was supposed to remember to do today. Something she came here for.

Giles clears his throat. “I’m sorry,” he says at last, not just a whisper, barely even a breath. Slayer hearing, though, makes it pretty impossible to keep things at an inaudible level.

“Don’t,” she says simply. There’s way more to say here, but he’s right – this is strictly a business visit. To be honest, she wasn’t even planning to come down to the residential wing, but somehow she ended up here anyway.

The same can be said for a lot of things, really.

Just not now, not when they’re pressed for time – saving the world turns out to be a pretty full-time occupation, even with extra hands on deck – and still raw on the inside from the last time they tried to talk about them, almost a year ago now. Later, there will be time for this, but not now, with their alliances in Nairobi breaking down and the Turkish team in the middle of negotiating the end of a demon war. And Sydney – well, there’s not a lot to say about Sydney, except that it ended badly for all involved.

If she’s learnt nothing else over the past few years, she’s learnt that some things are un-saveable.

Giles obviously missed the memo, because he keeps right on going. “I failed you.”

“Giles – ”

“I should have said it earlier, I suppose. How proud I’ve been, watching you shoulder the responsibility that comes with leadership. Watching you grow, and help others to grow, yet not losing yourself in the meantime.” He shakes his head. “I should have said it earlier.”

She steps forward into the light and his eyes skitter over her briefly, then dart away. He never manages to look her in the eye.

“Whoa, easy on the pity party there Watcher-Mine. I thought I was the only one who got the birthday blues,” she says ruefully, and then the words register like a slap to the face. “And hey, it’s your birthday. Guess it’s all kinds of redundant to wish you a happy one. I would’ve got you a present, but I’ve pretty much only seen the inside of backwater airports since yesterday morning, and they’re not so much with the meaningful gifts. A world of gaudy neck pillows and trashy magazines. And speaking of all things budget-y – are we cutting costs on travel as well as lighting?”

The ghost of a smile plays over Giles’ face, and Buffy hopes it’s because of the babble. At least she’s doing something right today, even if it’s ‘cheering through word vomit’. It’s like the silence they’ve successfully maintained over the past four months means nothing, because all the things she’s wanted to say are churning in her stomach like she’s just chugged a bottle of ipecac and is ready to blow the ‘might have been’ all over the red-gold-brown rug.

But she can’t shake the sense that they’re running out of time. It claws at her, a wounded animal moving too fast to see or fight. Unseen eyes bore into the back of her neck and her skin crawls with unease. There’s still nobody there when she whips around, but the air is unsettled as though someone was just there behind her and she was too slow to react.

Down the hall, someone is singing in a high thin voice. No words, just a constant drone of noise. It’s familiar – like forehead kisses and night-lights – but try as she might she can’t remember the words. They slip from her mind like fine grains of sand through a sieve, almost caught but not quite.

Buffy faces Giles and frowns, because sometime in the maybe ten seconds since she looked at him, he’s turned away. “I didn’t know there were kids living here,” she says to his back. His hair is longer than she’s seen it for awhile, feathering over the collar of his shirt. “What’s next? Doggy day care?”

“A change is as good as a holiday,” he replies flatly, head bent, eyes fixed on something crumpled and hidden in his hand.

A dismissal if ever she heard one.

“Don’t tell me,” Buffy jokes, her tone falsely bright. “You’re going to Vegas to live the showgirl dream. Bright lights, false eyelashes… I’ve always thought you’d look good in pink. Go Giles with your dancer self.”

Giles sighs.

She wants to tell him that sometimes she wishes that things didn’t have to change so much, that she could keep blaring pop music during after-school training just because it annoys him, that he could clean the glasses that he no longer wears.

“Giles – ”

He cuts her off. “You can’t stay here.” It only takes four words to crush the newly-sprung hope that this isn’t something else that can’t be fixed.

She might be able to come up with the right thing to say if that kid would just stop singing. But the noise continues to echo in her head, and she’s never been good with the sentimental or inspirational anyway. It just turns into another General Buffy moment. And in the end, he’s right. She’s needed elsewhere.

“Happy Birthday, Rupert,” she says quietly to his ramrod-stiff back, and turns away into the velvety half-light.

“I swear to whoever is listening, if I have to listen to Andrew bitch about how undervalued and unappreciated he is for one more minute, I won’t be responsible for where my sword ends up,” Xander grouses, flopping down onto the sofa between Buffy and Willow with a giant bowl of popcorn in hand.

They exchange amused glances behind his head.

He looks between them for a second and then sighs. “Okay, so by ‘my sword’, I probably mean ‘one of the new Slayer’s swords’. Unless, y’know, a certain Buffy-shaped-friend feels like getting a little field practice in amongst all the bureaucratic overlording she’s been doing these days…”

Buffy has to bite the inside of her cheek to hide the smirk. “Giles still hasn’t revoked that ban on you having pointy shiny things, huh?”

Xander grumbles under his breath. “A guy tries to protect himself from invaders into his guy-space at night and instead of a tickertape parade for his heroic acts, he gets banned from the armoury.”

“Maybe Watkins is worried you’ll try to make off with the rocket launcher,” Willow cuts in, and both women lose the battle to not laugh as Xander’s face lights up like a kid on Christmas morning.

“We have a rocket launcher? Why wasn’t I – ”

Willow chokes on her giggles. “Just a guess, but it might have had something to do with the whole thing where you broke into a United States Army base and, um, stole one?”

Xander glares at her. “Oh, sure, make fun of Key Guy.”

“I’m sure that Dawn and Rona were suitable cowed by your sword-wielding skills,” Buffy reassures him, patting him on the shoulder. “I know Dawn said later that she nearly peed in her pants.”

She doesn’t bother to mention that the almost-pee was a product of laughter rather than fear. No sense in kicking a guy while he’s down.

He looks oddly satisfied by that, if a little suspicious. “Serves them right for staging a sneak pillow attack in the middle of the night. And where Dawn learnt to pick locks, I really don’t know, but if I had to point fingers, I’d be waggling mine in the direction of a certain bleach-blonde outlaw type.”

He shoots a quick sideways glance at Buffy, as if testing the waters. She rolls her eyes at him even as her chest tightens just a little at the not-really-mention of Spike.

They’re still not sure what went down in Los Angeles a few months back, but nobody’s seen or heard from anyone who was there, human or vampire. Knowing Spike, he’s probably biding his time, waiting for the most inconvenient moment to make a grand sweeping entrance.

The alternative is still too painful to consider, and Buffy’s nothing if not an expert at deflecting her friends’ concern. So she just rolls her eyes at Xander and digs her hand into the bowl of popcorn, and if there’s a little fist-clenching going on around the fluffy kernels, it’s out of sight where it should be.

And if she knows Xander’s not fooled by the way his eye fixes on hers and holds, it’s not the time to be showing it. “So what are we watching tonight?” she asks cheerily instead, telegraphing her need to not talk about those that aren’t here. There’s a stack of DVD’s on the coffee table, and the couch is just the right blend of firm and squashy, and she’s pretty sure Willow’s brought sweet treats for later.

There’s no room for melancholy on movie night. It’s right up there with rules number one through seventeen in the
unofficial Slayer Handbook, Scooby Edition. Which contains warnings like ‘Never trust a substitute teacher’, ‘Tread softly and always carry a spare stake’, and ‘If the computer talks back to you, destroy first and ask questions later.’

Their weekly meetings have become something of a tradition, so much so that the Coalition higher-ups know not to send Willow out to oversee the forming of the Magic Departments in their various posts around the world, or to keep Buffy in meetings or in the field on Thursdays. Xander calls it ‘Scooby Time’. Willow calls it ‘Pop Culture Appreciation (With Yummy Snacks)’.

Buffy calls it therapy.

Even if it’s the wrong sort of sofa and there’s no ticking clock or scribbling of notes. Because when she’s being honest with herself, which is scarily often these days, movie nights with Xander and Willow do more to smooth over her increasingly frayed nerves than any of the Coalition-employed counsellors or other degree-having helpful people could hope to achieve.

They’ve all got scars – some more visible than others, which is why she always sits on Xander’s right side – and they’ve all got things that keep them awake at night, but that’s kinda the point. For a few hours on Thursdays, they can pretend they’re back in high school, hanging out in the living room of the Summers’ house, mostly whole and as yet scar-free. It makes the other times more bearable somehow, and it makes Buffy appreciate why people turn to religion and routine to find solace.

There’s as much comfort in lighting candles and speaking words to unseen deities as there is in sugar highs and B-grade comedies. Or so she figures, anyway.

“On the rotation list tonight, my bestest buds with girl parts; we have a romantic comedy starring one or more members of the Friends cast, where the female lead goes through a series of dating trials before realising that her true love is in fact her best friend – ” He waggles his eyebrows at both women in turn and they groan in tandem as he continues.
“– or if that doesn’t float your boat, there’s something about a whole lot of very expensive jewellery and Audrey Hepburn, or finally – and I’d like to put in a pre-emptive vote for this one since I was so unfairly overruled in last week’s Bond vs Zach Braff debacle – the comedic pro-animal-rights stylings of a man so elastic-faced he must have some G’Shrak demon in him, Mister Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura.”

“Good job, Xander!” Willow offers with a proud smile, and he grins back at her.

“Well, I put a lot of thought into movie selection. It’s a whole process.”

Willow snorts. “No, I meant good job working ‘debacle’ into a sentence. That’s really stepping it up.”

Xander looks at Buffy. “Oh great and mighty leader, permission to hit a certain Wiccan redhead with a neither-pointy-nor-shiny cushion?”

Buffy pretends to mull it over. “Granted. But if Giles hears about this, he might ban you from the soft furnishings section of the Housekeeping Department.”

“That’s a chance I’m willing to take,” Xander replies with a shrug, and before he’s even finished the sentence the bowl of popcorn goes flying through the air and Willow shrinks away, squealing in mock-fear.

Buffy allows herself a moment of wistfulness – because as much as they try to pretend, they’re not the same teenagers they once were – before grabbing something soft and plump and joining in the fight, her laughter tangling amongst theirs like her limbs.

Sometimes healing happens in ways you least expect it to.


He’s sitting on the couch when Buffy pushes through the door quietly, his eyes fixed on the flickering soundless menu screen of the DVD. It runs through a montage of scenes from the movie itself, pauses, then repeats the process in a never-ending visual loop. A long-forgotten bowl of popcorn sits on the handmade coffee table, filled with enough fluffy kernels for three. The calendar on the opposite wall proclaims the date to the silent room in big black block letters.

It’s Thursday.

He sits squarely in the centre, arms stretched over the over-plumped cushions like there’s a soft body on either side of him and he’s shielding them from everything outside their little bubble of togetherness.

Xander is alone.

It strikes her immediately that he’s wearing his eye patch, and she wonders if he expected company, or whether he just never takes it off. She definitely can’t remember ever seeing him without it – it’s as much a part of his armour now as the goofy smile and too-loud shirts.

“Hey,” she offers quietly, like they’ve had four months of normal Thursdays between now and then.

Xander nearly jumps out of his skin, staring at her as if he can’t believe his eyes. Well, eye. She wonders how the world looks without depth perception, and thinks she should be more disturbed at her macabre curiosity. It’s not something she could ever ask him, after all, and even less something she’d want to find out for herself.

“Hey,” he says in response, one syllable that gives away nothing, every muscle in his body tensed as if he’s readying himself to fight or flee.

Somewhere along the way, the goofy boy turned into a man whose smile doesn’t reach his eyes. He’s learnt the art of being inscrutable, and yet she can see from the twitch at the corner of his mouth, the way his fingers grip and release the back of the couch, that it’s a work in progress. That it’s a nonlinear progression that he didn’t ask for.

Buffy knows a little something about that.

”Whatcha watching?” she asks, nodding at the television as though the outcome of whatever’s happening here between them is wholly dependent on the made-up lines that someone else says. Which, in a way, it is, though something about the set of Xander’s jaw tells her he’s not in the mood to follow the script.

His eyes never leave hers. “You tell me.”

Buffy can feel her smile stretch so tight across her teeth that her lip threatens to split. It’s not a nice feeling, but it distracts her from the odd twisting in the pit of her stomach. “It’s been a long time,” she starts, and Xander’s face hardens.

“Whose fault was that?” he asks, pushing up from his position on the couch slightly awkwardly, but not making any attempt to move closer to her. As if she’s some kind of contagious disease.

As if he’s afraid.

Buffy can’t look at him. “Mine.” The carpet is well-worn in a distinct path under her feet, as though someone spends a lot of time pacing the floor here. There’s a tiny spot on the toe of her right boot that looks like blood. She wonders whose it is, and for the life of her she can’t remember what she was doing to get it. “But better late than never, right?”

“Maybe,” he answers, and drags his hand up over his face and through his hair, making it stick up crazily. He looks wild for a moment before his eyes soften. “I could point fingers, Buff, but it won’t make either of us feel better. Won’t change anything, either.”

“I needed to get away,” she says, suddenly needing to explain why. “After what happened in Cleveland, and the blame-fest that came afterwards, and… and Dawn; I just needed… I needed to not be Buffy for a little while. I never really got that before, not even after the collapse of Sunnydale.”

Xander moves to interrupt and she steps closer to him, pretends not to wince when he rocks back on his heels. “I should have listened to you guys when you told me to take time off. That I needed to talk to someone. All that stuff. But by the time I got why you were so persistent, it was a one-way road to Total Buffy Meltdown Town."

“I’m not saying it was the best choice ever,” he says without malice, “But I get it.” He frowns. “And just so you know, I’m pretty sure your one-way street had at least two lanes, maybe three. Maybe more. You weren’t the only one who couldn’t see beyond the next bend.”

“I don’t know how we got here,” Buffy says quietly. She wants to sit, but sitting means moving past the mountain that is Xander, and when did he get so solid-looking, because it’s more than a little –

No. Bad Buffy.

“If we knew how we got here,” Xander offers, and if he’s noticed her appraisal of his Xander-ness he doesn’t show it. “Maybe we wouldn’t be here.”

“Look at you, waxing all philosophical,” she says, a grin creeping across her face before she can help it.
“I did try offering my mind to the Communications and Prophecies Department,” Xander replies, his lip twitching, “but they just wanted me for my body. Specifically, Maggie in Communications has a crazy pirate fetish, and I was so not touching that with a ten-foot butter-dipped pole.” He rolls his eyes. ”Their loss. I don’t have to embrace my inner Confucius to earn candy and beer money, and I get to save all the best gems for my buds.”

“You allowed in the armoury yet?” Tentative in a way that she’s never had to be around him, but it’s new ground they’re forging and she doesn’t want to miss a step.

He’s definitely fighting the urge to laugh now. “It took a lot of convincing, but I think Giles saw the validity of my argument in the end.”

“Finally used that Cher tape, huh?”

“G-Man didn’t want his buddies to know what he gets up to in his spare time,” Xander snorts. “Still waiting for him to properly explain the ‘why’ of that one, since you wouldn’t tell me where you got it. And sometimes when I’m asleep, the image of Giles in a shiny spangled dress grinds all up in my dreams.”

Buffy winces at the thought. “Might need to borrow your pole.” The minute it’s out she knows where it’s going to go. He might be getting better at inscrutable, but one double entendre and it’s pretty much open season.

She’d be lying if she claimed to be unhappy about that.

The look he gives her is best described as a full on dirty man leer. She almost expects a mirror ball to drop and bow chicka wow music to start playing. To her surprise and consternation, he takes one look at her obviously-horrified face and breaks into genuine laughter, the kind that you can’t help but be swept up in.

“I missed this,” he says when he’s able to breathe normally again.

“I missed you,” Buffy replies in a voice that’s more steady than she expected it to be. A dull ache has started up just below her ribs. His eyes shine.

There’s something she wants to ask him. Well, if she’s being honest with herself – which she rarely is these days – she doesn’t want to ask, but she has to. And it has to be right now, because time’s running out.

Buffy draws in air so fast it burns all the way down, and forces the words out through her too-tight throat, driving the question out into the space between them in a rush of hurried syllables forced out by hot air.

“Do you ever see her?”

She can see the emotions play across a face that’s suddenly not so different to the boy she used to know once upon a time, except right now he’s visibly fighting the urge to deflect her question with a red cape of awkward humour. He doesn’t ask her to clarify, doesn’t ask why, and she’s grateful, because she’s not sure she knows the answer herself.

“Sometimes I’d like to think I do,” Xander says quietly, looking away. “I talk to her sometimes, and it’s almost like she’s really there. Maybe I’m really talking to her. Maybe I’m not. Either way, it’s not going to confirm my status as a guy who’s with the having of his sanity.”

“I think we do what we have to, to find comfort,” Buffy says slowly.

“Is that what this is?”

She doesn’t know what this is. It’s movie night, and that used to be enough to get them all through, until the day when it stopped being enough and started just being another illusion in a long trail of lies. It started with a frayed edge in the cloth, and became a tear without them even really noticing.

Sometimes you just can’t stitch fast enough.

“She’d be proud of you,” she says simply.

“She’d be proud of us,” he replies, but his eyes are shadowed with something unreadable. “We made it this far, and we’re mostly intact. Nobody’s made a fortune exploiting anyone else, but I think she’d be proud anyway.”

The phone rings in the bedroom, breaking the silence that Buffy doesn’t quite know how to break. Xander’s face creases with confusion.

“Who the – wait right here,” he says, and beneath the casual tone she hears the hint of apprehension, a learnt behaviour.
It’s almost midnight, and just like Pavlov’s dogs salivate when they smell the meat powder, the ringing of a phone in the wee hours invokes threatening tears.

Choked throats and fears that somewhere, someone they love is lying dead.

Her heart stutters in her chest and the world blurs.

His fingers trail across the doorframe as though he’s searching for an anchor. Forced brightness in his tone for an instant before his breath catches midway through his own name. As though he’s forgotten it.

There’s another drop of blood near the hem of her pants, half-hidden by the folds of the fabric. She can’t tear her eyes away from it.

Xander’s been in the bedroom with the door closed for what could be eternity or could be mere seconds – time seems to stretch and warp like saltwater taffy lately. The clock on the wall ticks evenly like a heartbeat, and in the silence Buffy realises that it’s past midnight and no longer Thursday.

Movie night is over.

Movie night is over, and there’s someone sobbing in the bedroom, and no matter how much she wants to comfort him she can’t bring herself to push through the door and ask who it is. The shrill ring of the phone continues on and off, until it’s one constant drone of sound echoing around in her head. Can’t think. Can’t breathe. Can’t move.

So this is the sound someone’s world makes when it crumples around them.

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