10/19/10: This chapter has been updated. Thanks to KnifeEdge for the beta-read.
Banner by KnifeEdge.
Dawn woke to a dark room and a growling stomach. She had a vague memory of Tara coming into her room to say goodbye. She liked Tara; why couldn't she be her sister instead of stupid Buffy? Of course, if Tara was her older sister, maybe she'd be cranky and bossy and mean, too. But Dawn doubted it. She'd never seen Tara be anything other than totally sweet to everyone she knew. Even the really annoying people, like Buffy and Anya.
Dawn climbed out of bed and promptly tripped over the boxes she'd left next to it. She held her breath for a moment, hoping she hadn't woken Buffy. She really didn't want to talk to her right now. After a few seconds, when the house remained silent, she moved slowly toward the door. Buffy had left the bathroom light on. Dawn rolled her eyes. Buffy still thought she was a baby, thought she'd need a nightlight if she woke up in the middle of the night.
Dawn skipped lightly down the stairs. Open boxes were scattered around the living room. A picture of her mom had been placed in the very center of the mantle piece. Dawn stopped in front of the fireplace and stared at the photo. “I miss you, Mommy,” she whispered. She trailed a finger across her mother's face and thought about the last time she'd seen her. Then she wished she hadn't thought about that, wished that she could stop thinking about that.
She wiped away the tears that came unbidden and headed for the kitchen. More boxes, piles and piles of them. Dawn wondered if they actually had room to put all these things. Stupid house. She missed their old kitchen already, missed the big island counter where she'd sit and do her homework every afternoon while her mom prepared supper. Buffy didn't cook, not the way Mom had. Dawn tried to remember the last home-cooked meal she'd had. Probably during the few days Willow and Tara stayed with them after the funeral. Tara liked to make big breakfasts—pancakes and fresh fruit, not just cold cereal—and suppers with all four food groups represented.
Dawn opened the refrigerator. It held a carton of milk, a few apples, some yogurt, a handful of beers, and two large pizza boxes. She pulled both boxes out and examined the leftovers. Pepperoni, sausage and mushroom on one, anchovies and pineapple on the other. One thing she'd say for Buffy, she had good taste in pizza toppings. She rummaged through the cupboards until she found the dishes, and piled her plate with the last four slices of the anchovy pizza. After a moment's consideration, she pulled a beer out as well and twisted the cap off.
She wandered back into the living room and curled up in a corner of the couch. The pizza was cold and greasy and delicious. Dawn took a tentative sip of the beer and scrunched up her nose at the foamy, yeasty flavor. Kind of gross, really, which was exactly what she remembered from the sips her dad had given her off his beers when she was little. She shrugged, held her breath, and chugged half the bottle down.
Dawn spied the remote control on the coffee table and flipped on the TV. Nothing but snow on all the channels. That was when she remembered that they didn't have cable, and they weren't going to be getting cable. “Lame,” Dawn muttered. She tipped up the beer bottle and swallowed the rest of it. Then she went into the kitchen and retrieved another beer. When she came back to the living room, she turned on the DVD player and chose "A Knight's Tale" from the small pile of rentals next to the TV. Heath Ledger was so cute.
Dawn was engrossed in the movie, having made it to the scene where Will and his men first met Chaucer—one of her favorite parts of the story—when she heard a thud from upstairs. She hurriedly crammed her half-empty beer bottle down between the arm of the couch and the cushions, and took a bite of pizza to cover the smell of beer on her breath.
The hallway light came on, and Buffy's voice drifted down the stairs. "Dawnie? Is that you?"
Dawn rolled her eyes. "No, it's the ghost of Christmas past," she said. "Duh, who'd you think it was?"
Buffy sighed as she came down the stairs. It was her 'I can't believe I have to put up with this' sigh. Dawn was intimately familiar with it, having heard it at least a hundred times a day over the past couple months. "What are you doing?" Buffy asked once she was standing in the living room. Dawn smothered a grin at the sight of her sister with her hair a ratty mess and a livid red pillow crease marring one cheek.
Dawn looked from Buffy to the TV and back. "I'm knitting a sweater," she replied.
There was that sigh again. Dawn turned her eyes back to the television, ignoring Buffy with all the energy she could summon.
Buffy stood next to the couch for a minute, sighed again—Because how would I know she was mad if she doesn't go around breathing heavily? Dawn thought—and turned to go back upstairs. "Don't stay up too late," she said. "We've got a lot of work to do around the house in the morning."
"Whatever," Dawn said. As soon as she heard Buffy's door close, she pulled the beer out from its hiding spot and swallowed what was left in the bottle. Her head ached a bit.
When she stood up to put her dishes in the kitchen, she felt dizzy and a little tired. She giggled quietly when she tripped over her own feet on the way to the kitchen. "Oh, no, I'm drunk!" she said with another giggle and a hiccup.
Dawn dropped her plate in the sink, pitched the empty bottle into the recycling bin, and headed back to her bed. She laid down and pulled the covers over her head and, to her relief, fell into a dreamless sleep.
"Dawn," Buffy called as she knocked softly on her sister's door. She waited a moment before knocking again. She knew it was stupid, being so wary of one skinny little fourteen year old, but the last thing Buffy wanted was a repeat of yesterday's hysterics. There were only so many times she could take being called a bitch before she'd give in to the urge to slap that snotty expression right off Dawn's face.
Buffy sighed. She really wasn't a violent person, sister-slapping impulses and the way she’d punched the guy next door notwithstanding. Buffy flushed when she thought about her introduction to her new neighbor. Again. She wasn't entirely sure it if was the out-of-character hitting or the half-nakedness that was making it so hard for her to forget about the incident. Hmm, maybe it had a little more to do with the full-on nakedness she'd witnessed later that day—
Buffy shook her head, willing those thoughts away, and rapped sharply on Dawn's door. "Dawn, wake up!" She opened the door and came face to face with her sister.
"Morning, sunshine," Buffy said with forced cheerfulness. "You planning on rolling out of bed and giving me a hand some time today?"
Dawn pushed past Buffy without a word and stomped down the stairs. Buffy followed her more slowly, and the two settled into a rhythm of unpacking boxes. They worked in silence for a time, until Dawn finally spoke.
"Where's Kokopelli?" She looked up from the box she'd just emptied. "I've been through all the boxes marked 'art,' I think, and I can't find him."
Buffy glanced at Dawn. It was obvious from the look on Dawn’s face that this was about more than just a misplaced knick-knack. "I ... I sold it. Mr. Giles looked through what we had at the house, and he took the things he thought would sell in the gallery."
Dawn's eyes filled with tears. "But I loved him! And he was Mom's. How could you get rid of him? Without even asking me?" She stood abruptly. Her hands shook. "God, you just really don’t care about either of us, do you?"
Buffy stood as well. Her hands curled into fists as rage suffused her. Dawn had no idea—none whatsoever—what Buffy had been facing since their mother died. Everything she had done in the past six months had been for their mother and for Dawn; to be accused of not caring stung more than Buffy could express. She hadn’t explicitly told Dawn all the reasons they’d had to move—she didn’t think a fourteen year old should worry about finances—but she’d thought Dawn had some idea of why the changes in their lives were necessary.
“Dawn,” she said finally through clenched teeth, “I’m sorry I didn’t check with you on every little thing. I’m trying to make sure we’ve got money to eat and pay our bills and maybe even have a little bit of savings when you go to college, okay?” At least you get to go to college, Buffy thought. She restrained herself from saying anything else right then—she knew whatever came out of her mouth would just sound bitter and selfish.
“Whatever! All I am is a duty to you, right? A mess you have to take care of, just like Mom was.”
Buffy surprised both herself and her sister by slapping Dawn across the face. There was a ringing silence in the room. Dawn pressed a hand to the quickly-reddening hand print on her cheek, tears welling up in her eyes.
Buffy took a step toward Dawn. “Dawnie,” she said softly. “I’m so sorry— I didn’t mean to—” The younger girl didn’t respond, but turned and bolted out the front door before Buffy could close the distance between them. By the time she stepped outside, Dawn was nowhere to be seen.
Buffy leaned against the door frame. She was torn between wanting to scour the neighborhood for Dawn—and then tying her down so Buffy could apologize—and being too angry at Dawn‘s cruel words to truly mean an apology at the moment. After deliberating for a minute, she went back inside. Dawn couldn't have gone too far, not barefoot and still in her pajamas, and she'd come back on her own. Probably as soon as she remembered she hadn't eaten yet today.
Dawn still hadn't reappeared more than an hour later. Buffy refused to worry about her, instead concentrating on her to-do list. She made one final check of the kitchen cupboards and moved on to the next item on her list—grocery shopping. Even if Dawn's stomach encouraged her to come home, Buffy reasoned, the lack of edibles would only send her right back out the door.
Buffy scribbled a quick note and affixed it to the refrigerator. Knowing Dawn, that would be the first place she would look when she finally returned. Before leaving the house, Buffy added one more task to her to-do list. It was a small gesture; she only hoped it would be enough to start her and Dawn on the road to repairing their relationship.
One Year Later
William opened one eye and squinted at the clock before turning to Buffy and trailing light kisses down her bare back. “Wake up, sunshine,” he murmured in her ear. “Got lots to do today.”
“Mmpf,” Buffy grumbled into her pillow. She swatted at him and pulled the covers up around her ears. “Tired. Sleep now.”
William leaned against the headboard and smiled down at her rumpled blond head. “All right, you can sleep in. But no presents for graduates who don’t get out of bed on time…”
Buffy opened her eyes and peered up at him. “Presents?”
He nodded. “But we can wait till after graduation if you’d rather,” he said.
“No, no, I’m awake.” She rolled over and stretched. “See, all wide-eyed and bushy-“ A huge yawn interrupted her declaration of wakefulness. “Okay, so maybe some coffee would be of the good here.”
“I can go brew a pot.”
Buffy grabbed his arm when he moved to get out of bed. “Oh, no, mister, you said presents, I want presents! Coffee can wait. Now gift me. Gift me good.”
William laughed and kissed her. When he was finally able to pull himself away from her lips and limbs, he reached into the drawer of the bedside table. Buffy rolled her eyes at him.
“I have really got to remember that you have no concept of how to hide things,” she said.
“If you’re going to be sassy, I can just put this somewhere you’ll never find it.”
Buffy smiled sweetly. “I’ll be good. Promise.” Buffy held out her hand expectantly and glanced up at him in surprise when he handed her two airplane tickets. “We’re going to… England? Are you serious?”
“Yeah. Been talking to Giles, and he and Jenny are planning a trip with Dawn and Alistair this summer. Thought we could go, too.”
“Oh, my god, that’s fantastic! Thank you!” Buffy sat up and hugged him tightly.
“Glad you like it, pet. We’re going to be there a bit longer than everyone else. We’ll fly out with them, but after they leave, we’ve got another two weeks to explore. Maybe head over to France, if you like.”
Buffy sort of melted into his arms. “This is perfect, William,” she said.
“Well, that means it’s just about good enough for you, then.” He kissed her softly. “Have I told you lately how proud I am of you? You’ve been working so hard, you deserve a treat before you start grad school.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Buffy groaned. “Why am I not taking a year off?”
“Because you really want to be a psychologist? Or you’re crazy, I’m not sure which.” William brushed her messy hair away from her face. “Now, you want some breakfast in bed before I go fetch your family from the airport?”
Buffy tugged him down onto the mattress next to her. “Only if you’re on the menu,” she said with a saucy grin.
William watched with pride as Buffy strode across the stage in her cap and gown, and collected her diploma from the dean of students. She turned toward the audience with a brilliant smile; even though she couldn’t see him in the sea of faces, he knew that smile was just for him.
A warm hand gripped his tightly, and he looked over at Dawn’s shining face. “You’re going to do it at dinner, right?” she whispered in his ear.
William nodded and swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat. “That’s the plan, pigeon,” he said. “Now shush, no one else’s supposed to know. Not till big sis does.” He flicked his eyes past Dawn to Giles and Jenny, who were, of course, paying no attention to either of them. Jenny was busy keeping Alistair entertained and quiet, while Giles was looking suspiciously teary-eyed and polishing his glasses.
William was lost in his thoughts through the rest of the graduation ceremony and was startled when Dawn tugged on his sleeve. “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s go find Buffy!”
He followed her slender form through the crowd, and within five minutes, he spied Buffy’s golden hair. She turned and spotted him and Dawn. She grinned widely and waved her diploma in the air. William rushed to her side and swept her into his arms, hugging her close. “There’s my girl,” he said. “So proud of you, love.”
Dawn pushed him aside as soon as he released Buffy and gave her sister an enormous hug. “Yay! Can we go eat now?” she demanded. She winked at William over Buffy’s shoulder. He rolled his eyes at her and shook his head.
Buffy laughed at Dawn. “Always thinking with your stomach,” she teased. “But no, I want to talk to some of my friends and professors first. You’ll just have to wait. Maybe Jenny has some Cheerios you can munch on or something.”
Dawn sighed and came to stand next to William, waiting as patiently as an over-caffeinated seventeen year old was able while Buffy accepted congratulations from Giles and Jenny and planted adoring kisses on Alistair’s chubby cheeks. Buffy’s friends – Willow and her girlfriend Tara, Xander and his fiancé Anya – crowded around her in an excited buzz.
It was almost an hour later when Buffy was ready to leave the Portland State University campus. She slipped her hand into William’s and linked arms with Dawn. They headed north on the pedestrian trail towards downtown, where they were to meet everyone for dinner at Buffy’s favorite restaurant. Buffy and Dawn chattered excitedly as they walked the tree-lined path. William let them natter on, happy just to be with his two best girls on a beautiful spring day. His right hand drifted to his pocket and surreptitiously patted the small box contained there.
William let his mind drift. Finding Buffy again – or rather, being found by Buffy – had been a turning point for him. He had realized, especially after the things Norah had said to him, that he had been intensely lonely for most of his life. Even during his relationship with Dru, he had kept his distance from everyone around him. It was only with Buffy that he had opened up and allowed someone in, let someone know who he really was. Since they had reconnected, he’d found himself accepted into her tight-knit circle of friends and family. To a man who’d spent much of his youth as an object of ridicule and his early adult years trying to maintain a tough-guy image that truly didn’t fit, it was a welcome change to be liked for himself.
They had reached a small park on Southwest Madison when William came to a sudden stop. He looked at Buffy’s shining hair and happy face, dappled in the sunlight, and drew her off the path and onto the grass. Buffy and Dawn wore identical expressions of surprise when he dropped to one knee in front of Buffy. He heard Dawn’s excited, “Oh my god!” as he took Buffy’s hand in his, but he couldn’t pay attention to anything but the look in Buffy’s eyes.
“I was going to wait,” he said, “but I just can’t. I love you, Buffy Anne Summers. You have made my life worth living. Every day that I spend with you is a day that I am grateful to be alive. Please, will you do me the honor of becoming my wife?” He fumbled for the ring box in his pocket and held it out to her. “And please don’t run away from me this time,” he added with a grin.
Buffy flushed at his final words, but the huge smile never dropped from her face. “Oh, William,” she said, falling to her knees and raining kisses on his face. “Yes, yes, of course!”
Tears filled William’s eyes as he carefully slid the ring onto her trembling finger. They shared a tender kiss before they were both knocked sideways by the force of Dawn wrapping her long arms around them.
“Oh my god, you guys, I’m so happy!” she squealed into William’s ear. “Hang on, I need to take a picture!” She pulled her camera from her purse and began snapping pictures.
William chuckled at Dawn’s antics before looking back at Buffy. He gazed at her solemnly, the barest hint of a smile curving his lips. “I love you,” he said, and kissed her again.
“I love you, too, Mr. Pratt,” Buffy said.
“You’re always gonna be my girl, right?”
“I am. I promise.” Buffy glanced down at her ring and back up at William. “Always.”
And she was.
-Gram Parson, Return of the Grievous Angel
All William wanted was for the woman on the quad to turn around so he could see her face. His rational mind knew that it wasn't her, just like every other heart-stopping glimpse of a petite figure with long blond hair or teasingly familiar curve of a woman's neck never turned out to be her. His stubborn heart, though, needed more proof.
Her hair was long, falling halfway down her back in the same shade of gold that he had so loved. He could see just the slope of her cheek and the tip of her chin, and it frustrated him that she wouldn't turn for a better view. Even her profile would be enough to convince him that it was just another mirage, and then he could turn his attention back to the essays he was meant to be grading. For now, though, his eyes remained fixed on the woman.
She was dressed in a cheery yellow blouse and denim capris. She was playing with a toddler, a dark-haired little boy who happily chased after the ball she rolled for him. William watched the flash of her slender, tanned limbs and thought of Buffy doing cartwheels and roundhouse flips in his backyard.
William gave himself a mental slap and forced himself to return to his desk and the work that was waiting for him. You’re over her, you ponce, he reminded himself, ignoring the obvious contradiction in that thought. It had been months since he'd thought of her, at least actively, the way he was thinking of her now. His eyes slid to the window again and it was several minutes before he consciously noticed that he was watching her once more.
William had thought – hoped, wished – that Buffy might contact him after she turned eighteen. When she didn't, when the months passed and he heard nothing from her, he told himself that it was nothing more than he should have expected. He thought of how she had lied to him for months with seeming ease; thought of how from the very start she had lied about things both big and small, hidden things from him. It made him doubt everything about their relationship. He had been aware even while they were together that he was a safe haven from a desperate situation; what wouldn’t she have said to keep that safety net? He didn't want to think that her feelings had been nothing more than gratitude for what he offered, but the further he got from her, from the heat and surety of their relationship, the more he doubted.
He told himself that she had been young, very young, when they were together, and what creature is more fickle than a teenage girl? That line of reasoning did nothing to comfort him, however, and he had promptly crawled into a bottle. It was during the prodigious drinking jag brought on by the lack of Buffy that he met Harmony.
He'd picked her up at a bar, initially drawn to her by her long, golden hair that was almost the same shade as Buffy's. That was, unfortunately, where the similarities ended. Still, she was warm and willing in his bed, and he wasn't going to turn that down, even if the girl did have the IQ of a piece of lint. They lasted all of three months and, surprisingly, it was Harmony who ended the relationship after she got tired of William calling out the wrong name during sex.
Getting dumped by a girl like Harmony did nothing for his desire to jump back into dating. For a long time, he'd stuck to harmless flirting at the bar, interspersed with the occasional one-night stand. And if he thought of how he'd told Buffy that casual sex wasn't his style? Easy enough to wash that memory away with a shot or six.
William sighed heavily when he realized he was staring again. Give it up, he chided himself. The mental talking-to was fruitless, however, and his gaze remained on the woman. She glanced up suddenly, exposing a sliver more of her face to William. The breath caught in his throat as she – finally! – turned around to greet the coltish, long-limbed girl who now joined her on the lawn. There was no mistaking that smile, those eyes, that little bump at the end of her nose. Especially when coupled with the presence of a girl he immediately identified as Dawn.
William stood, fingers gripping the windowsill painfully as he watched her. It really was her. He could hardly believe that, after four years of intermittent longing, she was so close. He dithered for a moment, not sure what he wanted to do, what he should do. As he stood there, heart thumping and mind racing, Buffy rose and gathered the toddler up. She and Dawn started walking across the quad, their figures growing smaller with every step.
That decided him. He turned, ready to race through the hall and down the stairs to catch her before she disappeared from his life again. And came face to face with Norah.
She smiled at him from the doorway, then tilted her head to the side as she regarded him. "Are you okay?" she asked. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
William spared one more backwards glance through his window; Buffy was going, going, gone. He turned back to Norah, his beautiful girl with her glossy chestnut hair and sparkling brown eyes, and smiled heartily. “I’m fine,” he said. “Are you ready to grab lunch?”
But it was in that moment, with his palms sweating and hope dying in his stomach, that he finally admitted to himself how very much not over Buffy he truly was.
Years of practice at putting Buffy out of his mind had made William quite adept at it, so it was no surprise that she was the last thing he was thinking of when he – quite literally – bumped into her a week later. He was leaving his last class of the day, and just as he stepped out of Eliot Hall, he collided with a body. The sheaf of papers he carried went flying.
“Bollocks,” he muttered to himself, kneeling to collect his things. He glanced up when a small, warm hand brushed across his, and froze. He was staring directly into Buffy’s big, hazel eyes.
“William,” she breathed. The way she said his name, as if it meant something, pierced him to the core. The look in her eyes – like a drowning woman just thrown a rope – sent a shiver of hot desire down his spine. He watched her cheeks flush and realized he had been staring at her for far too long without moving or speaking.
“Buffy,” he said finally. His voice shook a little, but no more than his hands.
Buffy smiled uncertainly at him. “Hello,” she said. She handed him the papers she had gathered up, and they stood slowly, eyes fixed on one another.
William drank her in; she looked exactly the same as he remembered, as he'd dreamt her, but entirely different at the same time. Because she was here, in front of him, breathing and large as life. Her hair was loose around her shoulders the way he liked it, those rich, shiny, bouncing curls. He fought the urge to touch her.
“Buffy,” he repeated. “What are you doing here?”
Her cheeks reddened again and she looked away from him. “I… I’m meeting a friend for coffee,” she said quietly. Then she crossed her arms and lifted her chin. She flashed her eyes at him as she added, “I’m not stalking you or anything.”
She was so completely herself in that moment, so much the Buffy he had missed, that he couldn’t stop the laughter that bubbled out of his chest. "No, of course not," he said. "You surprised me, is all."
He was going to mention the day last week when he'd seen her; he desperately wanted to ask her about the child he'd seen her with. But just as he opened his mouth to speak, a voice called her name.
Buffy turned and waved to a redheaded woman who hurried toward them. "William, this is my friend, Willow," Buffy introduced them.
"Oh, Professor Pratt," Willow smiled. "I took your Intro to Poetry class my freshman year."
William nodded and watched Buffy as she and her friend talked. She carried herself with a womanly confidence that was new to her, and he realized for the first time just how young she had been when he knew her. She hadn't seemed it at the time - or if she had, only very rarely - but looking at her now, he could see the difference between the girl she had been and the woman she had become.
He blinked when he heard his name. Willow was asking him something. "I'm sorry, what was that?"
"I asked if you wanted to join us for coffee," she said.
William spared a quick glance at Buffy. She wasn't looking at him, and her tense shoulders betrayed her nerves. He paused for a moment before answering Willow, sure that he was going to decline the offer. Then Buffy turned to him with a small smile. He took it as an encouraging sign. "I'd love to," he said.
Willow grinned. She hooked arms with Buffy and whispered something into her ear that made Buffy smile again. The girls chatted easily as they walked, and William let their voices flow over him without really absorbing what they were saying. He followed them to one of the on-campus cafes.
He finally broke his silence when they were seated at a small outdoor table, drinks in hand. "I saw you last week, Buffy," he said. "You were with Dawn, on the quad."
"She was here for a tour," Buffy explained. "She likes the language program, especially the Russian and Chinese offerings. She's freakishly good at foreign languages."
"And the little boy you had with you? Is he..." His voice trailed off as she looked at him calmly. He really wanted to know what was going through her head.
Buffy shook her head. "That was Alistair. Jenny and Giles' little boy," she said. William let out a breath he didn't know he had been holding. Buffy gave him her best Mona Lisa smile; she knew exactly what he'd been thinking. That she could still read him so easily gave him a secret thrill.
"You... did you stay with them, then? After..." William glanced at Willow, not sure how much he could say, how much Buffy had already shared with her friend.
"After the trial?" Buffy asked. William nodded. "Yeah, they were great. They are great. Dawn finally got the father she deserved, and Jenny is amazing. Their home has been the perfect place for her."
"What about for you?" William leaned towards Buffy a little. She met his eyes for a moment before dropping her gaze to her hands.
"It was... they were very good to me. Even though I tried everything I could to not deserve it." Buffy took a sip of her coffee and added, "Jenny taught me how to cook."
"Well, that's a blessing, innit?" William teased. "'Specially as you were so bloody determined to do it."
Buffy laughed. "You'd be impressed. I hardly ever put the wrong milk in the scrambled eggs anymore."
"I’ll believe it when I see it. You can cook for me sometime, kitten, show off your skills." William caught Buffy's blush. He wasn't sure if the blush was for the pet name or the implication that he wanted to see her again. Whatever it was, he was more than halfway to hooked again, craving this vibrant woman sitting across from him. He sighed inwardly and wished things could be easy.
Willow cleared her throat, and Buffy and William turned to look at her, realizing at the same moment that they had been ignoring her presence. "This has been great," she said cheerily as she stood. "But I have another class to get to, so I'll just be going. See you later, right, Buff?"
Buffy nodded silently as her friend gathered her things and walked away. Her nerves came back when she was alone with William; he saw it in the way she fidgeted with her coffee cup and tapped her nails on the table. She dumped a packet of sugar on the table and swirled it into a spiral with her fingertip.
William couldn't help it. He reached across the table and took her hand in his. She stilled instantly and looked him straight in the eye. "’S’good to see you, Buffy," he said. "I've missed you."
A soft smile lit Buffy's face as she grasped his hand tightly. "I missed you, too," she said, very softly. She placed her free hand on top of their entwined fingers and took a deep breath. "I have a confession to make."
Buffy bit her bottom lip before speaking. "I, uh, I kinda asked Willow to find out your schedule for me. I had this whole plan, where I’d run into you on campus and ask you out for coffee…” She grinned at him. “Exhibit A. But I don’t want to play some stupid game, I don’t want to, to lie to you. About anything. I just… I needed to see you.”
"Buffy," he said with a smile. She stopped talking and looked up at him, worry evident in her eyes. He grinned at her. "Not complainin' here."
She laughed and the tension ran out of her shoulders. "Good. Okay, well, the next part of the plan was for me to invite you to the annual school's-out party Willow and I are hosting this Friday. So consider yourself officially invited."
William chuckled. "How many parts does this plan of yours have, pet?"
Before Buffy could respond, a shadow fell over William's face. He looked up and met Norah's quizzical eyes. When he didn't move, she quirked an eyebrow at his hands, still linked with Buffy's in the center of the table. "Norah," he said as he pulled his hands back to his lap, "I'd like you to meet Buffy." Buffy nodded. "Buffy, this is Norah."
Norah extended a hand in greeting. "Hi,” she said, a touch too cheerily. “I'm William's girlfriend.”
Buffy took her hand. "Nice to meet you," she said with a smile. She glanced from William to Norah. "I should go." She stood and looked at him one more time. "It was great seeing you again, Will.” She nodded again to Norah and was gone.
Continued in Chapter 16: All I Want
Every day was awful.
William had thought, foolishly, that it would get better each day, easier somehow to wake up alone and go to bed alone and startle awake in the middle of the night reaching for her and never quite being quick enough. She haunted him. He slept only in spurts, sometimes twenty minutes, another time three hours of sleep so hard he woke in a sweat. And always she was there. Golden. Glowing. Gentle and warm.
The first time he called her cell phone, it rang twice before going to voicemail. He called repeatedly over the next three days, but each time his call went directly to voicemail. On the fourth day, he received only a recorded message stating that ‘the number you are trying to reach has been disconnected or is no longer in service.’
He got very, very drunk. It didn't help.
He went to the Doublemeat Palace, where the dead-eyed woman behind the counter had never heard of Buffy Summers. Manny, the manager and only slightly more animated than the minimum-wage grunts manning the grills, was equally clueless. William left with a mixed sigh of frustration and relief; finding Buffy at that place, with the relentless fluorescent lights that made him feel slightly less-than-human, and the lingering stench of old grease thick in the air, would have been almost as bad not finding her at all.
His stop at the diner was just as fruitless. They remembered Buffy, sure, but the only address they had on file for her was the shabby walk-up in the bad part of town. No emergency contact listed.
In an act of sheer desperation and not a little bit of self-loathing, he made his way to The Alibi Room. No Buffy, but plenty of cheap booze. Getting very, very drunk at the sleazy dive helped even less than getting very, very drunk at home.
It was almost two weeks later that he finally lit on a simple solution to the case of the missing girlfriend. He darted out of his office in the direction of the university library. He could have kicked himself for not thinking of this sooner – might have done so if he hadn’t been working so hard at pickling himself into oblivion. He knew when Buffy’s mother had died, he’d find her obituary and that bastard’s last name, and then he’d find Buffy.
There was no doubt in William’s mind that the phone call from Dawn had been the trigger for Buffy’s disappearance. When he thought of that night, the look in her eyes when he came upon her in the kitchen, he hated himself for not pursuing the cause of her distress, for thinking they could talk about it the next day. And when it came to Dawn and Buffy and trouble, the only thing he could think of was that rat bastard stepfather of theirs. So he’d find the man and kick his teeth in, if that was what it took to get Buffy back.
William lurched around the corner to the library entrance and came to a dead stop. Sitting on a bench just outside the library was a young girl with long, shiny brown hair and big blue eyes. A heavy plaster cast covered her left arm from wrist to bicep and a sulk adorned her face. She glanced up sullenly as he approached, then flipped her hair over her shoulder – and did shampoo-commercial hair run in the family or what? –and looked right through him.
“Dawn,” he said, and that caught her attention. She looked at him with a deer-in-the-headlights expression.
“Who’re you?” she asked with studied nonchalance, the surprise melting from her face to be replaced with bored indifference. William was pretty sure he knew where she got that trick from.
“You are Dawn, yeah?” he said. “You’re Buffy’s sister.”
She rolled her eyes. “Buffy’s my sister,” she replied with a heaping of scorn.
William sat on the bench next to the girl. “Thought you were in Iowa,” he said tersely.
She eyed him for a minute. “You’re Will, aren’t you?” she said finally, a bit of warmth creeping into her tone when he nodded. “Buffy won’t talk about you anymore, but she used to all the time, before I… when I was away.”
William absorbed this little tidbit of information. “What happened to your arm?” he asked gently.
Dawn cradled the arm in question closer to her body. “I fell,” she said. Her closed-off expression was another one William was too familiar with for comfort.
“For some reason,” William said, “I find that hard to believe.”
She was good, he’d give her that. She didn’t even twitch, just cut her eyes his way for a second and then resumed staring at nothing.
William sighed. He reached over and patted her hand tenderly. She flinched slightly at the contact, and he drew back. “Why aren’t you in Iowa anymore?”
Dawn drew her shoulders up to her ears. “I got in trouble. My aunt didn’t want me there anymore.”
He clenched his jaw, bit back a scathing comment about fair-weather relatives. “What kind of mischief could you get into, pigeon?” he asked, a teasing lilt in his voice.
She bit her lip before answering him. When she spoke, her voice was low and bitter, hardly the squeaky, squealing pre-teen voice he’d become familiar with from her calls to Buffy. “Oh, let me think. Drinking, smoking, shoplifting. That enough?” Dawn’s chin was down now, the point resting on her chest. She seemed to be trying to sink into the bench.
“Gotta say, I’m impressed,” William said. “I’d ask what you were thinkin’, but I expect you’ve heard that a time or two already.”
Dawn looked up at him with surprise. A smile crawled across her lips. “I think I’m getting why Buffy likes you so much,” she said.
“How is your big sis?” William asked, aiming for casual but missing by about a mile.
A guilty expression crossed Dawn’s face. “She’s okay, I guess,” she mumbled. “You could ask her yourself, you know.”
William felt a shock slide down his spine. His head swiveled around, as if he expected to find Buffy hiding somewhere along the hallway or behind a potted plant. “Where is she?”
Dawn cocked her head toward the library. “She’s in there, talking to Giles.”
“The librarian?” William’s head was spinning.
Dawn shrugged. “She said we needed help. Giles and Jenny – that’s his wife – were friends of our mom’s. We’ve been staying with them ever since…”
William gestured to Dawn’s arm. “Since you ‘fell’?”
Dawn nodded and her eyes welled up with tears. “It’s all my fault. If I hadn’t been so… If I hadn’t had to come back here, everything would be okay. Buffy would be okay.”
William’s heart froze. He stood up and stormed to the library doors, yanking them open violently in his rush to get to his girl.
The three figures at the circulation desk turned at his sudden entrance. William had eyes only for the slender girl standing with the middle-aged librarian and a slim, dark-haired woman. She glowed, just as he remembered. Her long curls were gone, though, her hair cut into a short, sleek bob.
William took her into his arms and studied her closely. “You cut your hair,” he heard himself say stupidly. He was only peripherally aware of Giles’ startled face and instinctive step forward, which was halted by a touch on his arm from the woman next to him. Buffy filled his senses.
She seemed thinner to him, her trembling form engulfed in a thick, cowl-necked sweater. She wore more makeup than was usual for her, but it couldn’t hide the bruising on her left cheek and around her left eye, didn’t mask the swollen and split lip she sported. William caressed her face very carefully. “Oh, kitten,” he sighed. “I’ve been so worried about you.”
Buffy stared up at him solemnly. One hand came up to stroke his cheek, but quickly pulled away. “I’m so sorry, William,” she whispered.
William shook his head. “I’m just glad you’re okay now,” he said. “But why’d you run off like that? Why didn’t you tell me what was goin’ on? Dawn would’ve been more than welcome at our place.”
Buffy sniffled. “I know it was stupid, I’m sorry.”
“And when he did this to you,” he gestured to her battered face, “why didn’t you call me for help?”
The tears Buffy had been fighting spilled over. She closed her eyes and buried her face against his chest. William tightened his arms around her. Then she took a deep breath and pulled back to look in his eyes. “I didn’t want to get you in trouble,” she said hoarsely. “I’m… Will, I’m so sorry, I should have told you.” William watched her and waited. “I lied to you,” she whispered finally. William felt his heart skip a beat. “I’m seventeen.”
Everything was very silent for a moment, then all William could hear was the roar of his blood rushing in his ears. His arms fell to his sides. Buffy dropped her gaze to his chest as Giles cleared his throat and moved towards them.
“Yes, well, Jenny, perhaps it would be best if you took the girls home now. I would like to have a word with Mr. Pratt.” Giles removed his glasses from his face and began polishing the lenses with a cloth as his wife stepped forward.
Jenny put an arm around Buffy and whispered something in her ear. Buffy nodded and moved away from William without another glance. William watched her walk away from him and felt his heart break a little bit more.
Giles’ voice broke into William’s thoughts. “Why don’t we talk in my office?” the older man suggested.
William nodded numbly and followed Giles to the small office behind the circulation desk. He took a seat in the wooden chair placed in front of the desk, gripping the armrests so hard his knuckles turned white.
Giles sat behind the desk and pressed his fingers to his temples for a moment before looking up at William. “Would you care for a drink?” he asked suddenly.
William was taken aback at the unexpected question. “Uh, yeah, thanks,” he said. He watched as Giles opened the bottom drawer of his desk and took out a bottle of scotch and two glasses. Giles poured a generous splash into each glass and handed one to William. They drank in silence. William was grateful for the burn in his throat as the alcohol went down.
Giles leaned back in his chair and contemplated William for a moment before speaking. “I understand that you and Buffy were, ah, in a relationship for some time. Buffy was quite insistent that you were unaware of her age. Given your reaction to the news, I believe that you did not knowingly take advantage of her.”
William choked a little on the last of his drink. He plunked the glass down on Giles’ desk. “Take advantage?” he said, a dangerous edge creeping into his voice.
Giles held his hands up. “Perhaps that was not the best choice of words,” he said. “Buffy was very clear about her wishes, and I agree with her that pursuing charges against you would only make a bad situation worse. Under the circumstances, however, it would be best for you not to have any further contact with her.”
“Charges?” William realized he was parroting the other man’s words, but the past ten minutes had done a number on him. His brain was still trying to process Buffy’s final words.
Giles cleared his throat and began polishing his glasses again. “We have no plans to mention your involvement with Buffy to the authorities. She certainly has enough to cope with as it stands. Her stepfather was arrested on suspicion of child abuse last week and she will be expected to testify when the case comes to trial.” He poured another scotch for each of them and knocked his back in one smooth motion. “Why she felt she couldn’t come to us until things had gotten so out of control…” he mused aloud, his voice thick with emotion.
William leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees and dropping his head into his hands. “This is… I can’t... I just can’t.” Words failed him. He stood up, the chair scraping across the floor.
Giles stood as well. “Before you leave, I need your word that you will stay away from Buffy. Jenny and I have been granted temporary custody of both girls, and they are our responsibility. I am willing to disregard your, ah, past actions. But I must warn you that I will not be so understanding if you continue to pursue a relationship with a minor under my care.” His gray eyes were flinty as he faced William.
William met his eyes. “Since the day I met Buffy, I have only wanted the best for her. I… I’ll stay away from her.” He swallowed hard and turned on his heel, slamming the office door behind him.
Every day was awful.
William had thought, foolishly, that knowing the truth, knowing that Buffy had lied to him for months, would make it easier to be without her.
He was wrong.
At the end of February, he interviewed at Reed College. He was offered the position in their English department, and he began making arrangements for the move to Portland. He decided he would leave Sunnydale as soon as the school year was over. He hoped that a change of scene would ease the heartache he lived with every day.
He followed Buffy’s case in the papers. They didn’t mention her or Dawn by name, of course, respecting their privacy as minors, but Ted Buchanan’s trial was big news in Sunnydale for a time. He read about the conclusion of the trial with mixed feelings. The shite was going to prison, but his sentence was a mere six years – much too short in William’s estimation.
During the last week of classes, William was in his office, packing up his things, when the knock came on his door. “It’s open,” he called, not looking up from the filing cabinet. He heard the door open and someone stepped into the office, but didn’t say anything. He turned to see Buffy standing just inside the doorway.
“You… you shouldn’t be here,” he said roughly. She flinched at his tone, but stood her ground. He stared at her, soaking her in. She looked gorgeous, dressed in a demure white sundress that bared her tanned shoulders. She was wearing the locket he had given her for Christmas.
“Giles knows I’m here,” she said. “He told me you were leaving, that you got the job in Portland.” Buffy took a step closer to him, and he sat down abruptly, not trusting himself. He wanted to run to her, take her in his arms and never let her go. “I wanted to talk to you before you left.” She took a seat on the chair facing his desk and crossed her legs.
“So talk,” he said. He cursed himself silently when her face blanched at his curt words.
“I am sorry, Will,” she said quietly, looking not at him but down at her hands, which were clenched together in her lap. “I know I should have told you the truth, I knew it every single day. I just… I didn’t know what would happen if you knew, and…”
“Well, it’s too late now, innit? Can’t go back and tell you what might have been, what I might have done. Because you didn’t give me that choice.”
A tear slipped down Buffy’s cheek, but she was otherwise outwardly calm. She kept her eyes on him as he spoke.
William sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. “Buffy, all I wanted for you, all I ever wanted, was for you to be happy. D’you know what I thought the first time I saw you?” He gave her a fierce glance and she shook her head meekly. “I thought, ‘that girl doesn’t belong in a dive like this.’ I thought you glowed; you were the most incredible girl I’d ever seen. I knew right that instant that there was somethin’ special about you. An’ I was right.” He shook his head. “I wish you had trusted me enough to let me help you.”
Buffy nodded solemnly. “If… if I had told you, would…” She fixed him in her steady gaze.
William swallowed. “I want to say I would’ve done the right thing, Buffy, but I just don’t know. You were all I thought about since the day I met you. You were all I dreamt about. Christ, you’re still all I dream about. I’m drownin’ in you.”
Buffy smiled sadly and stood, moving around the desk toward him. William stood as well, and caught her wrist when she reached for him.
“Buffy, you know…” He closed his eyes tightly. “You know this can’t happen, we can’t… Much as I want you, kitten, in every way possible, it’s not gonna happen.” He looked at her. The expression on her face, the sheer grief written in every line, hit him like a punch to the gut. “You need to go now,” he said.
“Oh,” Buffy said. Her face fell and she turned away from him. At the doorway she stopped. Her hands moved up to her neck and she unfastened her necklace. “Here,” she murmured, holding it out to him. “You should… I can’t keep this, Will.”
William’s heart hurt. “I gave that to you, Buffy. It’s yours.” He took her hand in his and curled her fingers around the locket. He lifted her hand to his mouth and placed a gentle kiss on her knuckles. She gave him one last, small smile through the tears that were now falling freely, and walked out of his life.
Continued in Chapter 15: The Return of the Grievous Angel
The call William had been hoping for came a week after their return from the coast. He glanced at Buffy where she sat cross-legged at the living room table, poring over her books, and stood to take the call in the bedroom.
He was silent for a moment when he returned to the living room, taking a seat on the couch behind Buffy. She leaned against his legs, and he ran a hand through her soft curls.
“Wanna take a study break?” he asked. “Could go for a walk, maybe hit the Espresso Pump.”
Buffy looked up at him and nodded. “Good idea,” she smiled. She stood and retrieved her heavy wool sweater from the closet, then slipped a black knit cap down over her ears. William grinned at her before grabbing a scarf and wrapping it securely around her neck.
“You’re bloody adorable, you know that?” he said, dropping a kiss on her forehead. He took her hand in his as they wandered down the street. They walked to the Espresso Pump, talking idly, while William tried to order his churning thoughts.
It wasn’t until they were sitting at a table with their drinks that Buffy called him on his distraction. “What is it?” she said. “I can see the gears turning in your head. You’ll start your hair on fire if you think any harder.”
William took a slow sip of his coffee before responding. “I applied for a position at Reed College in Portland. That’s who called before. I’m one of their final candidates for the job. Should know more in the next month or so. It's a great school, it'd be a good opportunity."
“Oh,” Buffy said tonelessly, staring into her mocha. “Well. Good luck, Will.”
William felt the tension rolling off of her. “I… if I were to get the job, Buffy, I’d want you to come with me. You know that, yeah?”
Her eyes flashed up to his. “I do now,” she said with a small smile, but her face, her body language, remained wary and distant.
“Buffy, love, what is it? I din’t think you’d mind leavin’ Sunnydale. What is there to keep you here?” He reached for her hand; she pulled it away, curled both hands into tight little fists in her lap.
“What happens when you get tired of me?” she asked quietly, her gaze flitting from the table between them to the wall behind him to the street; anywhere but on him. William wasn’t sure he’d heard her right, but then she looked at him with such an expression of dread that his breath caught in his throat.
“That’s not gonna happen,” he said quickly.
“How do you know that? You were with Dru for five years, Will, and you walked away from her pretty damn easily.”
William was suddenly sorry he had initiated this conversation in public. Buffy was fighting tears, and he felt a need to hit something. “You’re. Not. Dru,” he said finally, angrily. “There’s no bloody comparison at all, so don’t even start.”
“I know I’m not,” Buffy whispered.
William leaned forward. “Don’t you see how we fit together, Buffy?” he said fiercely. “I spent my time with Dru trying to be someone I wasn’t. You… I don’t have to pretend with you. I don’t have to lie about who I am to keep your attention. I can be myself, can be the man I want to be. And the only reason it was at all easy for me to walk away from Dru was because of you. You’re exactly who I’ve been waitin’ for my whole life. You’re the one, Buffy.”
Buffy drew in a sharp breath. Her hands shook.
“I can’t make you any guarantees,” he continued. “Life doesn’t work like that, you know that, better’n most, I suspect. All I can tell you is that I love you and I want you and I need you in my life. And I thought you felt the same way.”
Buffy stood abruptly and came around the table to plant herself on his lap. “William, I do. I love you so much that… I love you, Will, and that’s what scares me.”
“What’s so scary, Buffy?” William whispered into her ear. He wrapped his arms securely around her trembling frame.
“Everyone I love leaves me, one way or another. And I don’t want to think about the day you leave me, too.” She had stopped fighting tears; they were all pouring out of her in a silent flood.
“Not gonna happen, kitten.” William pressed his lips to her throat, ran his mouth up her neck to her jaw. “I’m not goin’ anywhere,” he promised.
Buffy nodded. “Take me home, Will,” she said hoarsely. “Take me home and make love to me. Please. I need… I need to feel you.”
William kissed her very gently and wiped the tears from her cheeks. Then he took her hand in his and led her home.
She shifted in his arms and rested her chin on his chest. William craned his neck to meet her eyes. “You’d really want me to move to Portland with you?”
William sighed and pulled her up his body till they were nose to nose. He twined his fingers in her hair. “Don’t want to be anywhere you’re not, sweets,” he said quietly. “I just want to be with you. Whether that’s here, Portland, or Timbuktu, it doesn’t matter to me. If you want to stay in Sunnydale, that’s what we’ll do.”
Buffy smiled and stroked her little hand down the side of his face. “You were right,” she said. “There’s nothing keeping me here, other than you.”
William wrapped his arms around her and buried his face against her throat. He felt her fingers scratching through his hair and down his neck. Her hands gripped his shoulders and he pulled back to see her shining eyes. “I adore you, Buffy,” he whispered.
“I know exactly how you feel,” she whispered back.
William spent Buffy's birthday spoiling her. The day started with breakfast in bed and continued with William dropping her at the spa for a day of pampering. He picked her up hours later and was pleased to see her looking relaxed and refreshed.
He wrapped the day up with dinner at the same French restaurant they had gone to on their first date. Buffy feigned surprise when he ordered wine for both of them.
"What happened to not supplying me with liquor?" she teased. "I'm going to start thinking you're a bad influence, with the contributing to the delinquency of a minor and all that."
William smiled. "Think that only applies if you're under eighteen, kitten," he said. "'Sides, it's a special occasion."
"Oh, right," Buffy said. "That doesn't mean you're not a bad influence, though." She took a sip of her wine. "Mmm, this is good."
Towards the end of the meal, he glanced at Buffy and caught the contemplative expression in her eyes. "What're you thinking about, love?"
"Hmm?" she said absently. "I don't know... about the first time we came here, I guess. How different my whole life is since then."
"Different in a good way, right?" he asked.
Buffy scoffed. "Nah, this whole deal sucks. Wish I were still living in that crappy apartment and working at the Doublemeat. You really screwed up all my grand plans, Will. Way to go."
William grinned. "Sorry 'bout that. How can I make it up to you?"
Buffy got that glint in her eye that William loved, but they were interrupted by the waitress coming to clear their dishes and ask if they wanted dessert. William didn't have to look at Buffy to know she straightened up attentively at the mention of chocolate.
It was over dessert that William worked up the courage to say the one thing he'd been trying to get out all night. "Buffy," he said very seriously, taking her hand in his, "I want you to know that I love having you in my life. There's nothin' better than waking up to your beautiful face every morning and goin' to sleep with you in my arms every night. If you'd let me, I'd spend the rest of my life makin' you smile, because nothing makes me happier than seeing you happy.”
He fumbled in his jacket pocket for the ring box, popping it open and setting it on the table between them. The diamond and sapphire setting sparkled in the low lights. “Buffy, will you... will you marry me?"
William glanced from the ring to Buffy's face. Her eyes were very wide, and her mouth hung open.
"Will," she whispered. The color had drained from her face, and her eyes flew up to meet his. Her hand convulsed in his grip before she pulled away from him.
William's heart sank. Even before she stood up, teetering a little on her high heels, he knew that her answer wasn't going to be the resounding 'yes' he was hoping for.
"I can't... oh, god, I can't breathe, Will," Buffy gasped. "I... I'm gonna..." Whatever she was going to say was lost as she rushed through the dining room and out the door.
William snatched up the ring and hurriedly settled their bill. He collected Buffy's purse and coat, which she'd left behind in her mad dash from the restuarant, and walked on leaden feet to the exit.
Buffy leaned against the wall to the left of the door. Her arms were wrapped around her waist, and her breath came in spurts. She looked at him with wild eyes when he walked silently up to her.
"I'm so sorry, William," she said between panting inhalations.
William leaned against the wall next to her and waited patiently. He draped her coat over her shoulders and rubbed her back gently; eventually her breathing slowed down and she turned to him with a sorrowful look on her face. He let his arms fall to his sides, fists clenched tightly.
"Will," Buffy said, one hand coming up to caress his cheek. "I really am sorry, that's not... I know that's not what you wanted me to say."
William closed his eyes and let his head fall back. He jumped when he felt her press a kiss to his throat.
"I want to say yes," she whispered. "I really do. But... can you understand that this is all a little fast for me?"
He looked down at her. Her earnest face was turned up to him, her tumultuous emotions written so clearly across it. He nodded.
"Say something," Buffy cried. A few hot tears flew out of her eyes. "Please, Will, don't, don't be mad at me. I couldn't stand it."
That broke through the numbness, the buzzing in his ears. He tugged her into his arms. "Shh, kitten," he murmured. "Couldn't ever be mad at you. It's... I'm just... I want you to be mine, Buffy."
She smiled at him through her tears. "Silly man," she said. "I am yours. Heart, body, and soul, I'm yours, William."
He nodded again and pulled her closer.
"Take me home, and I'll show you," she said. "I'm all yours."
"Are you awake?" Buffy said very quietly.
"No," William muttered. He squinched his eyes shut tighter when he felt her little fingers dance across his ribs, unerringly finding the most ticklish spots. He squirmed under her touch.
"Yes, you are, you liar," Buffy laughed. "Wanna talk."
William reluctantly opened his eyes. The room was dark, illuminated only by the faint moonlight filtering through the windows. "What d'you wanna talk about, pet?"
"I want to tell you I'm sorry about what happened at the restaurant."
William gripped her shoulders. "You don't need to apologize for that, Buffy."
"No, I really, really do. I know I hurt you, William, and that's not something I ever wanted to do." She ran a hand down his chest and rested it at his waist. Her head fell onto his shoulder as she draped her leg across his pelvis. "You're so good to me, even when I don't deserve it."
William sat up at that and dragged her onto his lap. "Buffy, there’s never a moment you don’t deserve all that’s good. Wish I could get you to believe that." He crashed his lips against hers, kissed her till she was gasping.
Buffy was pale and jittery when William collected her following her GED exam. He folded her into his arms. “What happened, pet?” he murmured against her hair.
“It was awful,” she said. “I failed, I know I did.”
William stifled a grin. “Sweetness,” he said, “I’m sure you did a fine job. You studied so hard, and you’re such a smart girl.”
She shook her head against his chest. “No, you don’t understand, it was really, truly terrible. I just kept guessing 'cause I couldn't figure out the answers.”
“Let’s not borrow trouble. You’ll get the results soon and then you’ll know. Till then…” he searched for a distraction.
“Will you take me out for ice cream?” Buffy asked suddenly, sniffling back tears.
William laughed. “This was all a ploy for sweets, wasn’t it?”
"Maybe a little bit?" Buffy said with a wavering smile. "It was a really scary test, though."
William smiled back at her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "C'mon, you can have all the ice cream you want."
William came home a few weeks later to find Buffy sitting on the couch in the dark. She looked up, startled, when he came through the door and snapped on the lights. She held an envelope in her hands.
"Buffy?" William said, a little worried. "Is everything okay?"
"Uh, yeah," she said. "My test results came today." She held the envelope out to him.
"What's the verdict?" he asked, sitting down next to her.
"I didn't open it yet," Buffy said quietly. She pressed the piece of mail into his hands. "Will you do it, please? I just... I can't."
"Sure." William pulled her into his arms for a quick hug. She stood and began pacing across the room as he ripped the end of the envelope off and pulled out the paper held within. He scanned the sheet quickly and turned to Buffy, a huge smile creasing his cheeks.
"Buffy, you... god, girl, you didn't just pass, you practically aced the test." He laughed as Buffy let out a whoop of joy and bounded into his arms. "Told ya you’re smart, din't I?"
Buffy grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him soundly. "Thank you," she said.
"For what?" William asked. "You're the one who earned this." He shook the paper at her, and she took it with a trembling hand.
"For believing in me," Buffy said. "For... William, for the million little things you have done for me since the day I met you. If it weren't for you, I don’t even know where I’d be right now." She leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his waist.
William hugged her tightly. "Buffy, I'd do it all again. Told you before, there's nothing I wouldn't do for you. Now, how d'you wanna celebrate?"
Buffy looked up at him with bright eyes. "We're celebrating?"
"It's not every day my girl graduates, is it?" he said, squeezing her a little. "So, dinner, dancing, whatever you want."
They spent the night at the Bronze. Buffy danced to every song, and William just tried to keep up. It wasn't hard, considering how damn sexy she looked in her red leather pants and skimpy black halter top. He couldn't keep his hands off her as she shimmied against him on the dance floor. When she pulled him to a dark corner beneath the stairs and wrapped herself around him, he just about lost control and took her right there. With great effort, he managed to keep it to an intense make-out session instead of something that would get them both arrested for indecent exposure.
"We've gotta go," he gasped finally, at the end of his tether when her hot little hands slipped into the waistband of his jeans.
"But we just got here," Buffy pouted. Her hands kept moving south, and her mouth latched onto his earlobe.
"Sweetheart, we've been here for hours, and, gah, if you keep doin' what you're doin', you're gonna be wearing a lot less clothes in about ten seconds."
Buffy almost relented at that; her hands crept marginally closer to safe territory and she stopped doing that thing with her tongue that was driving him bloody mad. "What if I wanna be wearing less clothes?" she said with an innocent expression.
William yanked her hard against his body. "I can take care of that... but let's get outta here first." He barely waited for her nod before tossing her over his shoulder and carrying her out of the club.
He woke sometime in the night. It was dark and very quiet. William heard only the rush of the wind around the house. Buffy wasn’t next to him.
William heard the murmur of her voice, but couldn’t distinguish individual words. He rose slowly and stretched a moment before padding naked out of the bedroom. A dim rectangle of light illuminated the hallway outside the kitchen.
Buffy’s words suddenly became clear. “Oh, Dawnie!” Distress laced her tone; the thickness in her voice betrayed impending tears. She breathed heavily. “Baby, don’t cry. Don’t. No, I’m not mad.”
William caught his breath. It seemed like an eternity before she spoke again. “I know. I miss her, too.” Another infinite pause. “I love you.” William heard her cell phone click shut.
He held his breath a moment more. He wavered between barging in on a private moment and darting back to bed to avoid detection. His decision was made for him when he heard Buffy give a tiny sniffle, followed by a long, ragged breath. He took three long strides from the bedroom to the kitchen and stepped through the doorway.
Buffy sat on the black and white checkerboard linoleum, back against the refrigerator and her legs sprawled out bonelessly. She was clad only in his Ramone’s t-shirt. She looked up at him with huge, tear-soaked eyes. “William,” she whispered. Her eyes stayed locked on his as he crouched next to her.
William’s hand trembled as he reached to brush a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Never wanna see you so sad, pet,” he murmured. His thumb rasped across her cheekbone, his long index finger traced the line of her nose. His eyes fixed on her lips for a long moment, then darted back to meet her own wide eyes once more.
“What is… can I…” he stammered. He took a deep breath. “I only want to help you, Buffy. How can I help?”
Her eyes fluttered shut. Both her hands grasped his as he delicately caressed her. She turned her mouth and nose into the palm of his hand and took a great whuffle of a breath. “You’re so kind, Will,” she whispered. “Why are you so kind?” She opened her eyes then and fixed them, gray-green now and intense with emotion, unsparingly on him.
He breathed against her mouth. “You know why!” His lips took hers roughly, but in the next second, he was slowing down, pulling her to him across the floor, his left knee between her open thighs. “You know why, Buffy,” he muttered urgently in her neck. She wrapped her arms around his back, plastered her chest to his and gripped the sharp corner of his shoulder between her teeth. She bit him gently, gave a shuddering sigh, and nodded against him.
“I know, Will.” She grasped his face between her hands and looked him square in the eye. They both held their breath as the moment stretched between them like taffy. Then she kissed him long and hard until they were both wild with it. Mad for each other. He surged against her on the kitchen floor, and she smiled and kissed him again, just the way he liked best.
It was dawn when William woke again, to the feel of Buffy pouring herself over him. She was warm and tousled from sleep, and she smelled of him. He could have sworn he purred when she pressed her lips to the base of his throat. She swung her leg over his hip, pressed against him. The curtains were open, and the bare branches outside the window stood starkly outlined against the purpling morning sky. Buffy was framed in the window, a dim shadow moving above him, a cascade of heat and sensation.
It felt like a dream.
William jolted up and reached for the bedside lamp. It came on with a snap and Buffy’s features were illuminated in the soft glow. “Need to see you,” he told her. He couldn't look away from her; he loved how she couldn’t make herself look anywhere but at him.
He let her push him back against the pillows, let her run the show and set the pace. She held his wrists down above his head and teased him with sweet little tastes of her lips, with the way she brushed her bare skin against his. Finally, he could take it no more and pressed his hips upwards. He hissed at the contact; his reward was Buffy’s own reaction. She let loose her grip on him and they came together in a passionate rush.
Buffy sat up against her haunches, her hips magnetized to his. She braced herself with her palms flat on his chest, the heel of each hand pressing down on his sensitive nipples. He gripped her waist firmly with one arm, held her tight and still against him. With his other hand, he reached up to twirl a lock of her long hair around his wrist. The golden rays of the rising sun peeking through his window silhouetted her; she glowed in the nimbus of light.
“Love this hair,” he said abstractedly. His gaze moved from her face to the curtain of her shining curls falling around them. “Love seein’ you like this, Buffy. Love the way you move, love the way you kiss. I love you, Buffy.” He pulled her flat against him and they began moving once more, pushing and grappling. They kissed till he saw spots, then a little bit longer. He could hear her name tumbling helplessly from his lips, a litany of adoration. As they soared over the edge together, she cried out his name, over and over.
When they were still and falling asleep, he felt her mouth caress his ear. “I love you,” she whispered, so softly he could hardly hear. “I really, really do.”
The house was dark and empty when he came home that night. He walked through the house, turning on lights and wondering where Buffy was.
The first clue was his bedside table. Yesterday she had sat on the edge of the bed, unintentionally as ever tantalizing him with her nightly routine. Brushing her hair. Removing her jewelry. Moisturizing.
She had a little collection of earrings, those dangly things she didn’t want to find tangled in her hair in the morning. She’d take them off each night, leaving them on the bedside table. The earrings were gone now, the of-late cluttered table looking oddly barren.
He tried to stop himself from opening the closet door and seeing the empty spaces where just yesterday her clothes had resided alongside his, but to no avail. Her dresser drawers revealed a similar void. His heart thumped painfully in his chest.
He wandered back into the living room and noted, somewhere beyond the numbness that was fast settling over him, that the book she had busied herself with for the past week was no longer lying on the couch. He scanned the shelves and nodded grimly when he spotted it.
He vanquished the last faint traces of hope and disbelief in the bathroom. Her small collection of creams and powders and lotions was gone. Her sponges and scrubs had disappeared from the shower. And in the middle of the mirror, in that deep red hue she knew drove him round the bend, was her kiss print.
William pressed his forearms against the mirror, bracing himself against where she had been. His forehead plastered to the mirror, his breath blurred the vision of her lips. He closed his eyes and laid his lips against her ghost. Then he pulled away from the mirror and reached beneath the sink for the window cleaner.
Continued in Chapter 14: Pale Blue Eyes
He had good days and he had bad days. This, he reflected as he watched Dawn deal the cards with a wary expression still in her eyes, was not one of the better ones. He hadn't meant to snap at her, and he hated seeing the way she'd jumped when he'd gotten short with her. Maybe he couldn't really feel guilt, not without a soul, but he came damn close whenever he put that look on her face.
He looked down at the table and smirked. "Really, Niblet? Think you've got a chance to beat me?" She'd dealt the cards for a game of Speed; even moving at half his normal speed, he could whup her skinny behind every time.
Dawn shrugged. "Well, we're playing Slapjack next, so I figured it was only fair."
He groaned. She liked that game because it was the only one that made him hesitate; every time he slapped her on the way to the pile, his chip gave him a warning. Besides, bluster and temper aside, he never wanted to hurt her. Even in play.
"You'd make a fine vamp, pet. Already got the instincts for torture." He grinned at her mock-offended expression and settled in to win a game of cards before her turn came around.
He begged off after the third round of Slapjack. He was starting to get a headache, and that wasn't helping his mood one bit. He slunk out to the front porch for a smoke.
Last night had been a bit of all right, even with the witches' latest trick making things more difficult. He'd saved the Watcher's ungrateful neck – that was sure to earn him some non-staking points for the future, always a good thing. And it had been a decent fight, though he still thought it would have been easier for him to patrol alone rather than taking the whole Scooby gang along. Proved his point, though. The Bot was not Buffy, no matter how much they all wanted to pretend otherwise. A robot could never be a Slayer, and with the fall closing in on them, the Hellmouth was starting to wake up. They were scraping by now – just barely – and he didn't like to think of what would happen come the annual apocalypse. The conclusion he'd come to was that they'd find a way around it, as the Scoobies so often did – an annoying habit he was familiar with from painful experience – or they'd be royally screwed. The smart money, what with them being short a Slayer, said the earth was definitely doomed. The thought didn't thrill him.
“I told you. I wanna stop Angel.” The incongruity of his next statement struck him funny, and a smile curved his lips. “I wanna save the world.”
The Slayer stared at him in utter disbelief. “You do know you're a vampire, right?” Her expression grew even more incredulous as he spoke, listing all the things he loved about the world.
“You got dog racing, Manchester United, and you got people. Billions of people walking around like happy meals on legs. All right here.” So maybe emphasizing how much he loved snacking on the innocent populous wasn't his brightest move ever, but at least she was listening.
They walked to her house in a tense, watchful silence. Slayer and Big Bad, side by side; yeah, they'd be an unstoppable team. Long as she didn't 'accidentally' dust him with that stake she still held in a death grip.
Not much had changed in the past four years to make him welcome the end of the world with open arms. Sure, no more happy meals on legs for him, but he liked Manchester's chances this year. And to top it off, he had all these... attachments. Dawn, first and foremost. But Tara and Willow were sweet birds, though Red could be scary when she wanted. Anya was always good for a little demon-y commiseration amongst all the goody-two-shoe-ness that permeated the whole Scooby team. Even Harris was tolerable when you got enough beer in him. Walking in on him dancing around like an idiot and singing along to one of Dawn's Backstreet Boys albums hadn't hurt either; that had been blackmail material enough to get him to lay off the 'I-oughta-stake-you's for a whole week.
He shook his head and lit up another cigarette. This was the problem with hanging out with humans; at some point, they stopped being food and started being people he sort of had to care about. He was worried about them – not just about Dawn, but about all of them. It wasn't right. Wasn't what a vamp was meant to do, but he couldn't help it. Hence the case of the crankies he'd been nursing all day.
The door opened behind him. He automatically shifted over on the steps so Dawn could sit upwind of his smoke. “Hey, Li'l Bit,” he said as she settled herself next to him. “Isn't it about your bedtime?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “Yeah, 'cuz I'm, like, eight years old.”
“Got school in the morning, is all I meant. Need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, yeah?”
“Ugh, don't remind me.” She planted her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands, and stared out into the night.
“Those girlies still giving you a hard time?” he asked. He stubbed his cigarette out in the flower pot Dawn had set on the porch for that purpose. “Want me to scare them for you? Could bite one of 'em for good measure.”
Dawn giggled and leaned against his shoulder. “Nah, that's okay. They're stupid, anyway. Like it's my fault I had to go to summer school. It's not like I'm some kinda J.D. or something. ” She twirled a lock of hair around one finger. “Janice is nice, though. We've got a lot of classes together this semester. I think it'll be okay.”
It was his turn to roll his eyes. Dawn had met the little twit in summer school and they'd become fast friends. But Janice was, to use Dawn's terminology, a J.D. – at least in his opinion. The girl didn't have a thought in her head beyond boys and having a good time, she used altogether too much eye makeup, and she wore skimpy little outfits that made him flinch every time he looked at her.
And his Victorian roots were showing.
“Glad you got a friend, Bit,” he said begrudgingly. “Just make sure you two stay out of trouble.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Dawn said. She stood up then and peered down the street. “Hey, is that... is that the Bot?”
He followed her gaze. Yeah, this would make his night complete. The Bot was making its way down the street in a shambling fashion. As they watched, it butted up against a fence, backed up a bit, and walked directly into the fence again.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered, and hurried down the street to rescue the thing. A gash across its forehead, exposing the inner workings of the Bot, was the likely culprit for the stumbling and bumping. The Bot smiled up at him brightly as he took its arm and led the way into the safety of the house.
He sat at Willie's, staring morosely into his glass of whiskey. There wasn't enough liquor in the world to soothe the emptiness that had been consuming him. He snarled at the Grolshank demon sitting next to him; the thing had been poking him with its spiny appendages all night. It swayed drunkenly on its bar stool and landed heavily on his arm. One of the spines drove straight through the leather of his duster and embedded itself in his arm. He growled, snapped the spine off, and twisted the Grolshank's neck till it gave a satisfying crack.
Damn. Killing things didn't make him feel better, either.
He slammed down the remains of his drink, tossed a twenty on the bar, and pushed through the crowd to the door. The assorted demons and sad-sack humans hastily moved out of his way. It wasn't until he was standing in the cool night air that he realized he was still in game face. He shook his demon away before slamming his fist into the nearest wall. He roared with mingled pain and grief.
The hollowness in his gut wasn't something that could be filled by blood or booze or hot wings. It was the pain of losing the woman he loved, no matter that she never could have loved him back. It was a pain that wasn't easing. Wasn't anything he could do to change the way he felt - there was no enemy to throttle into submission, no way to bring her back. Her face, her crumpled, broken body, haunted him whenever he closed his eyes. And he knew, he just knew, that wasn't going to be changing in a hurry. The eternal greyness of unlife alone stretched out ahead of him. If not for Dawn, if not for the promise he'd made, he'd have met the sunrise long ago.
“Buggering fuck,” he muttered. He sucked the blood off his knuckles and stormed away from the bar.
Dawn wasn't in her bedroom. He felt panic spread its wings in his chest, beating against his ribs. It was the middle of the night, so where the hell was she? She knew better, was intimately aware of all the things that went bump in the night. He gripped the windowsill so tightly the wood started to splinter beneath his fingers. If she'd snuck out with Janice, he was going to eat them both.
He took a deep, calming breath and stretched out his senses. The witches were in their room, talking softly. He could hear their heartbeats pitter-pattering along. And then he heard it – a third heartbeat, slow and steady in sleep. He crept around the corner of the house and peered through the window into Buffy's room.
The Bot lay on the bed, eyes open and staring blankly, and cords running from her body to the car battery they used to power her up. Dawn was curled up at her side, head resting on the Bot's shoulder, fast asleep.
He slumped against the window frame. “Ah, hell, Little Bit,” he whispered. “What are we gonna do?”
She was gone.
She couldn't be gone.
But she was gone.
And it was his fault. Again. He spun around in a frantic circle. “Dawn!” he hollered. “Niblet, where are you?” Fuck. Double fuck. Couldn't catch her scent, not over the greasy odor of burning rubber and the stink of exhaust and the stench of those filthy hellions.
He ran for the bike. One little girl couldn't have gotten far. Unless she'd been snatched.
No. She was fine. She was going to be fine. He was going to find her and she was going to be fine.
He couldn't find her. Seemed the hellions had headed out of town, though he couldn't say why, what might have chased them away.
But still no Dawn.
The Magic Box was dark and empty. He growled in frustration and pointed the bike for Revello Drive. She had to be there, or he didn't know what he'd do.
“Dawn!” He could smell her, of course, but was it just her lingering scent or had she come back? And there was something else, something familiar that teased at his brain for a second. He could hear two heartbeats from above him and there was a faint trace of blood in the air. If she was hurt... “Dawn, are you there?”
“I'm here,” she called from upstairs.
Relief swept through him; anger followed hard on relief's heels. He slammed the door shut as she walked slowly down the stairs. “Thank god! You scared me half to death.” He thought about that for a second. “Or more to death. You...” he pointed an accusing finger at her. “I could kill you.”
“Spike.” Her voice was soft and a little hesitant, but she looked no worse for the wear.
“I mean it. I could rip your head off one-handed and drink from your brain stem.” Ah, the power of worry; always ample inspiration for new and creative threats.
Dawn paused on the last step. “Look,” she said, and turned her eyes to where the Bot was coming down the stairs.
“Yeah?” He was not impressed. “Seen the bloody Bot before. Didn't think she'd patch up so...”
And that was when it registered.
The second heartbeat. That familiar scent. The coppery aroma of blood that wasn't Dawn's.
He could do nothing but stare at her. Buffy. Buffy. Buffy. His brain tried to catch up with his heart – his cold, dead heart that he swore had just begun to beat again.
She looked back at him, big dark eyes full of shadows and trepidation.
Dawn was talking, but it didn't compute. His world narrowed down to her, alive and breathing and standing in front of him. She squirmed a little under his stare, glanced down at her unbuttoned shirt, and moved to close it.
“Spike?” Dawn said. “Are you okay?”
He couldn't speak for a moment. “I... What'd you do?”
“Me?” she squeaked. “Nothing.”
Buffy folded her arms around herself and slowly raised her eyes to his again. He couldn't take this in. It was too much.
“Her hands,” he said with a nod in her direction. Buffy tucked them quickly behind her back, and he began to understand what had happened.
“Um, I was gonna fix them,” Dawn said. “I don't know how they got like that.”
“I do. Clawed her way out of a coffin, that's how. Isn't that right?”
Buffy looked around uncomfortably. “Yeah. That's... what I had to do.”
“Done it myself,” he said, very quietly. She looked him in the eye and for just that one moment, all the pain and sorrow and grief of the entire summer melted away.
Buffy was back.
Spike shook himself out of his daze; she needed him and he wasn't going to let her down. Not again. That was a promise to himself, and Spike always kept his promises.