Cherished

Cherished

Sometimes when she lay there, just before sleep rushed up to meet her, she conjured his face. The slant of cheek and hard, stern jaw; dark, worried eyes, mouth. She let the image of his beloved face linger. Sometimes she even allowed the disembodied head to have a neck and shoulders and arms, cut with marble muscle. There he was; splendid, and hers.

Those last few seconds, before sleep claimed her and she was lost to the nothingness, were treasured. He always said something, whispered some Gaelic endearment, or said her name, or just soothed her with an incoherent murmur. Then, off she went, pushed away from the comfort of him, set adrift like a boat in a calm lake.

***

The book was bound in leather. Two heavy satin golden ribbons were attached to either side of the cover to allow the book to be tied shut. She sat for a long moment, running her hands over the book's smooth finish and letting the smell of expensive cowhide assault her nose. She liked leather, she had to be a cretin and admit it.

She fingered the ribbons, then untied them and opened the book. The first blank, creamy page of handmade paper startled her. She ran a finger over its bumps and grooves and waited for inspiration. She had never been one to write down her feelings; indeed, she was a girl who wore her heart on her sleeve. Well, she had been that girl, once.

Something about this book called to her, though. Perhaps it was the loss of her close friends, the sense that she no longer had the lifelines to cling to as she once had. She went home at night to a house that was familiar, but usually empty. Dawn was off doing the things a teenager should do: hang with friends at the Bronze or the mall, talking about boys and complaining about her…well, Buffy was going to say parents, but in Dawn's case she hardly had that luxury.

Willow was spending most of her time these days, nose to the grindstone, trying to pretend that the lack of magic in her life wasn't killing her. And telling herself that if she abstained she would surely win back Tara's favor. Xander was trying to make sense of the mess he'd made of his relationship with Anya and from what Buffy could see he was doing a piss-poor job of it.

Giles called from England every Sunday night and Buffy put on her best "all-is-right-with-the-world" voice. The afternoon that Giles had told her he was returning home to Britain had been only slightly less painful than the day that Angel had walked away from her. If this was what it meant to be a grown-up, it sucked shit.

But she couldn't write that in this pristine book. She couldn't say 'sucked' and she surely couldn't say 'shit'. No, this book was the proverbial "turning over a new leaf." In the literal sense, actually, since Buffy could see the remnants of leaves in the pages themselves. She needed a place where she could be honest. She hadn't had a place like that since Angel had left. She was quite sure she would have a lot to say if she could only find the courage to say it.

***

It's cold here today. Or maybe it's just that now I'm always cold. I remember Mom used to shiver and say, 'Someone just walked over my grave.' I used to think that was kind of creepy, but I never once thought of it as foreshadowing. I wonder if she knew, I mean, way before the doctors told her. I wonder if she was scared?

The house is quiet. It usually is these days and a part of me doesn't care. I like the quiet, now more than I ever did before. I can wander through the rooms… still, peaceful rooms… and gather my very own thoughts to me. I don't have to share them with anyone anymore. Sometimes I think I'd like to, but then whom would I choose?

Xander? Willow? Dawnie? Giles? Tara. Well, I shouldn't exclude Tara. She was the first to know my horrible little secret about Spike. And she didn't judge me or look at me as though I'd grown an extra head. I'm not sure she understood, but at least she didn't place blame or call me a slut. Not that she needed to, there was enough guilt in me to go around: second helpings for everyone.

But, you know, I have very little remorse for what happened with Spike. If you're asking me to justify it (and of course you're not- you're just an inanimate object!), okay- if I'm asking myself to justify it…well, here's my justification. I wanted death. I wanted to be close to death. You can't get much closer than sex with a vampire. Stupid. Crazy. Dangerous. It was all of those, and more. It was a fascinating exercise in debauchery. I didn't care, but he did and the fact that he did kept me safe or God only knows how far I might have gone with him. All the way. All the way.

Buffy reread the words on the page and closed the book. It was only a little scratch; she'd have to dig deeper if she was ever to get to the heart of the matter.

***

Dawn found her at the dining room table, cheek resting on a slim volume. She stood for a long time, watching her sister's normally creased brow, smoothed by sleep. She resisted the urge to touch her; afraid she might wake her up. Flicking off the overhead light, Dawn left her sister and climbed the stairs to bed.

***

It was almost dawn when Buffy shifted uncomfortably in the chair. Her neck was painfully cramped and Buffy began massaging the knots before she even lifted her head from the table. She was sure that the book had left a crease down her cheek. Her tongue felt dry and useless in her mouth.

She heard rustling in the kitchen and stood uncertainly. A few short steps revealed a bleary-eyed Willow, leaning against the counter holding a mug expectantly.

"A watched kettle doesn't boil," Buffy said. "Or something like that."

Willow blinked solemnly. "Something like that," she agreed. "Coffee?"

Buffy shook her head. "I need to get some real sleep, I think."

"Rough night, eh?" Willow said. "I saw you at the dining room table. Weird place to curl up."

Buffy smiled. "Yeah, I guess."

The kettle began its shrill whistle and Willow reached out a hand to remove it from the heat. "Big plans for the day?" she said, pouring hot water into her mug.

Buffy shrugged. "You know me, Willow, big plans everyday."

Willow sat on a stool, stirring sugar into her coffee. "We could make plans, Buffy. You know, do something. You and me and Dawn. Maybe even Xander could get off that 'grim train' for a little while."

"Maybe. I don't know. I'm just not feeling all that do-y, if you know what I mean."

"I hear you," Willow said, sipping.

"I'll see you in a bit, okay. Sleep and then a lunch shift at the Double Meat Palace await," Buffy said, with a yawn.

"Sweet dreams," Willow smiled.

Buffy smiled back. She retraced her steps back into the dining room, gathered her book and headed wearily up the stairs.

***

I have to be honest. I came every single time with Spike. The same can not be said about Riley. He tried. He was tender and loving and I felt like a fragile glass ornament that might shatter in his arms…only I never really did. Parker's a loser. He doesn't count, but for the record…no.

Spike wasn't tender or careful. His wasn't the small subtle gesture. He did things in great insatiable gulps. Lots of times I didn't want to go where he wanted to take me, but Spike had a way of taking me anyway. Sometimes he'd look at me: unwavering, depthless blue eyes and I had no desire to say no. Without will, I held out my hand and he'd pull me down. But then, somewhere, it changed. I wanted things he wouldn't give me. The pleasure was in the pain, in the last few seconds before I passed out, in the forgetting. Spike's smarter than anyone gives him credit for, he knows me better than anyone else.

That wasn't always true, but it is now. At this very moment it is true.

When I ended it, it hurt. Not because I loved him, I didn't and I don't. My feelings were more complicated than that, more complicated than I was prepared to deal with. Did I know that in his own, underhanded way he was trying to place a wedge between me and my friends. Of course. Did I care? No. How could I? I didn't care about anything. I was in the wrong place, I no longer belonged. I'd been replaced by a robot!

I was addicted to Spike. I felt raw, split-open and exposed with him and the feeling was quite opposite to what I'd been experiencing with my closest friends: out of the loop, secretive, hostile. I couldn't talk to them anymore. I don't know how to talk to anyone anymore.

***

The Double Meat Palace was winding down after a particularly busy lunch rush when Xander arrived looking less hangdog than normal.

"Can you have a break?" he asked Buffy.

She pushed back her ornate baseball cap and smiled sincerely. "There's nothing I'd like better than to have a break with you, Xander Harris. Just let me take this trash out back." She lifted the green garbage bag and said, "This is my life."

Over a couple of sodas at a picnic bench out back by the dumpster, Xander alternately slurped soda, swatted flies and told Buffy that he had made headway with Anya. She was now, at least, answering her phone. She wasn't talking, but she seemed to be listening and Xander felt positive that this was progress.

"Gee, Xander, that's great. Listening, really, wow," Buffy said, enthusiastically.

"I was going crazy there, what with the wondering whether I'd ever get another chance," he said, flipping his empty cup over his head and into the Dumpster.

"Hmmm, yes, well things seem to be going in…"

Xander cut her off. "They seem to be going in a direction, right? Not standing still."

Buffy nodded and patted Xander's forearm absently. "I'd better get back."

"Oh, yeah, sure. Okay, well, I'll keep you posted," Xander said, moving off the bench and backing away. "See ya."

***

Xander and Anya's wedding was hard for me, harder than I'd thought. First off, if I'd been a different sort of girl it might have been Xander and I walking down the aisle, headed for a life of kids and picket fences and, possibly, slightly fewer demonic relatives. Secondly, I was kind of hoping they'd make it, to prove that relationships weren't impossible, even the impossible ones.

But then Anya's past came back to haunt her and the whole thing fell apart. That's the thing about your past, I guess, you never know when it's going to turn up. You start out with this blank page, empty, clean. Then you spend the rest of your life making messy blotches on it, things you can't erase or write over.

Mom said, 'Don't make choices you'll regret.' True enough, but what if the mistakes choose you?

***

The remains of dinner lay scattered across the kitchen counter when Buffy arrived home. Buffy shook a milk carton, heard the slosh of less than a tablespoon of liquid slurp across the bottom and tossed it in the garbage can. She scraped the plates into the disposal and rinsed them off before piling them into the sink.

The television was on, but there was no audience to witness Homer Simpson devour the six-pack of donuts while regaling his son with some off-kilter observation about human nature. Buffy flipped the television off and sat on the couch. She smelled of grease, but she didn't care. She was tired.

There wasn't even time to pull his face from the mist before Buffy fell asleep.

***

Mostly, I have the same dream. He is in my bedroom window, one long leg dangling to the floor, black boot toeing my carpet. From my bed, I follow the line of his leg up to his hand, which rests casually on his thigh and then up, up to the smooth, white, unblemished skin revealed by the open collar of his shirt. His chain, the long silver one I like, winks at me. Then up to his jaw, up the steep slant of his cheek, his shadowed eyes, fringe of lashes lowered, smooth brow, gelled hair.

I don't have to say anything for him to know what I want and he comes to the bed, shucking his shirt as he walks, hips tilted forward, a swagger that reminds me of how powerful he is. I don't want his mercy, not tonight, and from the look in his eye, I know I'm not going to be shown any.

He is naked from the waist up: shoulders rolled back, arms bunched with lean muscles, hands at rest, stomach flat and hard. He leans over me, the chain falling against my cotton-covered breasts with a small slither, and although it is not his skin that has made the first contact with me, I am almost immediately wet with wanting him.

He sits, twisting so he can look at me and I have no place else to look but at him. His eyes reveal nothing to me. I reach up a hand to touch his lip and he stops me, sucking my index finger into his mouth all the way to the crux, where my finger meets my hand and then I can feel his tongue slip out, sliding across my palm. I pull in a breath and close my eyes, letting the sensation of his wet tongue on my hand wash over me.

Then, he lets go; my finger slides out of his mouth and the cool air wraps around it. Now he releases the tiny row of buttons on my shirt. I can hear them slide out of their casings, no other sound in the room. He has no breath and, at this moment, neither do I.

Exposed, he bends to place his cool lips over my nipple and he draws me into his mouth. All the blood rushes to my breast. If it didn't happen so quickly, I could probably trace the paths the blood takes to get there: toes and fingers left numb, head spinning as the sensation of him suckling ties my stomach in knots.

He moves away from my breast and I could weep at the loss of his skilled, cool tongue on my hot skin, but I know where he's going and so it doesn't matter. I lift my hips without a verbal request and he slides my panties down my legs, sweeping them off of my feet and onto the floor. Then he settles between my legs and waits.

His eyes reach up over the geography of my body and I meet them with my own. The seconds pass. There is no question of what is to come next, but the wait is almost as intense as I know the orgasm will be.

His thumbs slide up through my labia, spreading me open and revealing my clitoris. Am I quivering? I feel as though I am, as though I am vibrating under his fingers, which are doing nothing else but holding me open to his unwavering stare. I watch, fascinated, as his eyes focus on mine, while he dips his head forward to lick delicately at the little bundle of nerve endings in my crotch.

Then, a broad, flat-tongued lick straight up the middle of me, followed by another. His eyes never stray. This is more erotic than the act itself: this clear-eyed display of his intent. He stops long enough to wet his finger and watches my face as he pushes it into me. I can feel my vaginal muscles close around the intrusion. He angles his finger up, rubbing it back and forth against something inside me. He is infinitely patient, but he knows when I have to let go and he drags blunt teeth over my clit as he strokes, strokes his finger deep inside me.

When I come, I arch up, grasping handfuls of hair and holding him tightly against me. I hear his muffled moan, as if I have given him pleasure, but the pleasure is all mine. It radiates from the very center of me, out along veins and arteries, muscles and tissue, coiling tendrils around my heart and squeezing tight.

And when my heart finally slows down and I open my eyes, he is naked. Poised above me, my eyes slide up past his thighs and groin and stomach and chest, up the column of his neck, past his lips, until I connect again with the one part of him he can never keep closed off from me: those eyes. Now they regard me with patience and reverence and love and I know that if I don't look away I will cry. I'm afraid that my tears will wake me up and I'm not ready to lose him yet.

So, I reach up and place my hand on his chest, coast it down the muscled slope and watch his eyes lose their focus. I wrap my hand around the length of him, so large I can't make my fingers meet. His penis jerks in my hand, pulses with life, and the irony is not lost on me. This part of him is alive. I hitch down in the bed and draw him into my mouth, reaching between his legs, hands resting on his ass and pulling him closer. It's so easy, this. The smooth rhythm of his cock in my mouth, my lips slipping up and down its length and I can feel him getting close and I want so much for him to come.

But Angel won't have it. Suddenly, I am flipped over so I am on top and he is beneath me, cock jutting against my belly. He searches for my eyes again, locks me to him, and lifting me by my hips, sets me gently on his penis. I tilt back and rock forward and I feel Angel's hands come to rest on my breasts and I can feel another orgasm fluttering against my womb.

"Wait for me, Buffy," Angel says, somewhere beneath me. He flips me again, and the bed rushes up to meet me and I feel him withdraw almost all the way before he pushes back into me with fierce, tender force. Again. Againagainagian. I can't see anything. I can't hear anything. I bare my neck, but feel only my own tears slide down onto the flesh I have exposed for him.

***

Buffy woke up to darkness. Someone had pulled a chenille blanket across her lap and switched off the table lamp to her left. She stretched and yawned simultaneously, standing to peer out into the night. A glance at the mantle clock read 1 am. She should patrol. Funny how patrolling had taken a back seat to all the other business in her life: child rearing and grocery shopping and bill juggling and denial.

She took the stairs slowly, changed into jeans and a sweater, tucked a stake into her back pocket and climbed out of her bedroom window. There was something about that act alone that reminded her of who she was, of her place in the world. The night swallowed her whole.

Her heart wasn't into it and clearly, after her first messy kill, neither was her mind. The vamp had come out of nowhere and knocked her flat on her rump without even trying.

"Jesus, Slayer, are you trying to kill yourself," Spike said, pushing himself off of the tombstone where he had watched the debacle. He advanced toward her, shaking his head. "Not feeling well?"

Pointing her stake at his chest, she replied, "I'm good, Spike. I'd watch it if I were you."

Spike smiled wryly, advancing close enough that the tip of the stake rested gently against his black, leather coat. "Really?" he asked. "Tonight's gonna be the night, then, is it?"

Buffy sighed. "Your night came and went a long time ago."

"Oh, I'm not so sure about that, pet," Spike purred suggestively.

Buffy turned and walked toward the cemetery's entrance. Spike hesitated for only a second before following her, catching up in two long strides. "That's it, then? One lousy vamp?"

Buffy shrugged. "One vamp, is one less vamp at least," she said.

"Well, I suppose that's one way of looking at it," Spike said.

"I don't need an escort, Spike," Buffy said, with a sidelong glance up at the angular vampire.

"No problem. I was going this way anyhow." Spike reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled cigarette package. Extracting a slightly bent cigarette, he patted down his pockets and located his zippo, lighting the smoke, and sucking on it gratefully. "God, I love these bloody things," he said.

Buffy laughed. "I thought vampires were supposed to abhor the mortal world."

Spike grunted. "No, love, you've got it all wrong. It's because we love all the trappings of this life that we…well, okay, not exactly true," Spike said, taking in another lungful of smoke. "Why would you want to give up these?" He lifted his hand to display the cigarette. "Or drink or," he shot a glance at her, "sex?"

"I've had no problem abstaining from any of them, actually," Buffy said, smugly.

Spike raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. "Oh, really, hadn't noticed." He stopped walking, reached out a hand to stop Buffy and leaned in. "I miss you, you know."

"Don't, Spike," she said, without enthusiasm.

"Don't…what?" he replied, so close that she could feel his words, propelled by manufactured breath, feather across her face. "Don't miss you? Don't love you? Don't touch you?" He stepped back.

"Don't any of those things and all the things you were thinking but not saying," Buffy said.

Spike shook his head. "No worries, pet." He stood still and watched Buffy step off the gravel path, through the gates and down the sidewalk. "No worries," he repeated to himself.

***

When Angel came the night of my mother's funeral, I felt safe for the very first time since she'd gotten sick. Riley had tried to offer some comfort, tried to support me and be there for me, but I pushed him away. Only Angel had what I needed and it was this: silence. He offered to do what we both knew was impossible, stay in Sunnydale. It was a cavalier proposition, we both knew that, but I had to test its sincerity anyway and I kissed him. Kissed him hard on the mouth and felt his mouth yield to mine, lips opening, tongue searching, heart-breaking.

When he pulled away from me his eyes were filled with sorrow. "Oh," was all he could say. I wanted it to be easy. I wanted him to make it all okay, but he couldn't.

So, when the time came to choose between life and death, I chose death. It wasn't a selfless act. It was selfish. Without him, I couldn't seem to find the strength to fight anymore. I felt old, used up.

I leapt off the tower and sailed through light and dark and love and hate and peace and anger.

And my last thought? Angel.

***

A quick shower washed the day's grease and dirt off her body, left her feeling relaxed. She toweled her hair dry, applied moisturizer, slipped into flannel pajama bottoms and an old T-shirt and crawled into bed with the leather-bound book.

She wondered what sorts of things Giles had written about her in his carefully scripted Watcher's diaries. God, she missed him. Missed him more than she had ever thought possible. An ocean away; lost to her. This was one thing she could say for sure that she'd never get used to; people in her life that left. How did you ever stop missing them?

***

Back from the dead, now there's an experience. Waking up, all of a sudden, in a space that's only roomy after you're dust. Aware, but not, of where you are and what needs to be done. That first breathless gulp of air and noise, too much noise: cars, wind, people.

I told Spike first. I remember the way he flinched when I told him that although I wasn't sure where I was, I was certain it wasn't hell. Poor Spike.

Then, I told Angel.

Seeing him was…

How can I write this down? How can I not? Someday, I'll be dead again. My memory won't be as long as his. Vampires don't suffer from dementia, do they? I'm not talking about Drusilla's crazy ramblings, I mean old age, senility. So, he'll always remember, but maybe I won't.

That endless walk across the parking lot. The long moment we stood and just held each other with our eyes. His hand reaching out to touch my face, a touch so much more intimate than sex because it's all we had. The bench where we sat, silently at first, until I started to talk. The way he held my hand, pressed between both of his, resting on his thigh. The way the moon seemed to revere us, held us in its milky glow. The way he cried and I held him. The way I cried and he held me. Just those moments: precious.

Did we decide anything that long night? Did we decide to walk away from each other because we had no choice? I don't remember. It's all blurry to me now. But we must have decided something.

We haven't spoken since. But this is what I know.

Life is short.

Sometimes, my dreams sustain me.

Sometimes, I think, this too shall past. That I'll get over missing him so much, that each day it will get easier.

But I never, for one minute, believe he doesn't love me. And I never, for one minute, question my love for him.

***

It wasn't the half of it, Buffy thought, waiting for the ink to dry on her last entry. Even to write his named seemed a painful exercise in self-restraint. If she could write his name, shouldn't she be able to dial his number, set herself on the road to see him?

But that was the thing about love. Sometimes it just kicked the crap out of you. Buffy thought she should write that down in her book.

He'd given it to her. Just before she got back into the car to head home, he'd stopped her with a hand on her sleeve and handed her the rectangular, plainly wrapped package. "I got this for you," he'd said, softly. "Sometimes it helps to have someone to listen, who won't judge or ask anything in return."

She'd taken the parcel and turned her face up to receive his kiss. Instead, Angel had tilted her head to one side, exposing the scar he'd left on her neck years before. He traced the raised mark tenderly and leaning close had whispered, "Mine," in her ear. Then, in a whirl of black coat, he was gone.

Now, in the moments before sleep claimed her, Buffy absently fingered the smooth leather of the book. She closed her eyes and summoned his face. And she imagined his mouth forming the words he had written on the inside cover of the book. Close to her ear, the mirage whispered, "You are cherished," and Buffy slept.

The End

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