Buffy hates the way the hospital smell settles in the back of her throat.
She's not even sure why she's sitting in Faith's room and tries not to think about it, but when she finds herself there after patrol the fourth time in a week, it stops being something she can ignore.
Partly she's there to rub it in, we won and the Mayor's dead and if she smirks a little while she says it, despite the exhaustion the battle left behind, all the wounded and all the dead, surely she deserves that much at least.
Buffy doesn't like to admit it, but partly she's there because this feels like a turning point, graduation and defeating the Mayor and Angel leaving, and it's something she needs to share. Faith's the only other Slayer in the world, she's as close as Buffy can get to someone like her.
And a little bit she's there because she can't bring herself to actually say she's sorry, but sometimes she sure as hell feels like she should apologize.
Mostly she sits and watches all the machines keep Faith alive and thinks about Angel.
"He's gone." When she says it, her teeth hurt and her tongue's too big for her mouth. She can't say his name, she can't, and not because she believes if she doesn't, it's not real. It's always real, painfully real, and she'll never be able to forget that. Buffy's just not ready to talk about it directly, and vaguely telling Faith about it is as close as she wants to get.
Machines make Faith breathe. Machines mark her heartbeat, the throb of her pulse a distant drum. Machines drip nutrients into her blood. Buffy stares at her waxy skin, the dark shadows under her closed eyes, and remembers the feel of a sharp, shiny knife parting skin.
When she looks down, she expects to find her fingers tacky with blood, but Buffy's hands are clean.
She presses them to her face, covers her eyes, and listens to the hospital noises. If anyone peeks in, they'll think she's crying over Faith's still body, broken and bruised, but the tears drip hot and wet down her cheeks, through her fingers, staining her skin. It was only a year ago -- a year, just twelve months, just three hundred and sixty-five short days -- that she sent him to hell. Surely this shouldn't be as painful as that, but it is. Bad enough when it was her fault, but now he's left her, he chose to walk away, and all she has left is this city that pulses with reminders of him.
Angel's gone and her heart is broken.
Sunnydale is a hole in the ground. Too bad all the memories it carries can't be buried with it.
Buffy slumps in her seat as the bus grinds and grumbles its way down the road. The potential Slayers -- no, they're Slayers now, aren't they? -- probably aren't as loud and excited as they sound, but their voices are young and high-pitched and make her head hurt.
Faith's sitting in front of her. After awhile, she turns around, hooks her arms over the back of the seat, and looks down at Buffy.
"Where are we going?"
That's a really good question. Buffy shrugs. "We should find a hotel. We need rest and probably better first aid than we can provide on the bus."
"And after tonight? We've got a bunch of baby Slayers here, but now there's a world full of them. We can't leave them out there not knowing what they are."
She's right. It should feel good to know someone else is thinking about all the things they need to do, but mostly it feels like one more thing to worry her.
"We'll go to L.A."
Not at all, but she forces herself to nod. "Who better to help us track down new Slayers in Los Angeles?"
Faith doesn't exactly look convinced, but Buffy leans against the window and closes her eyes. There's no way in hell she's going to sleep, but she needs the pretense of it and the peace it brings.
Buffy scoots her chair away from her desk and straightens her legs, forcing her toes into a full point, trying to stretch the pain from her calves. Half the night spent running around L.A. and uncomfortable heels which were way too cute not to wear anyway were taking their toll.
There's a light knock on her door, then Angel's standing in front of her, carrying two cups. Hers is hot coffee. His is blood. From where she's sitting, she can't tell the cups apart.
"Any new Slayers found today?" He hands over her coffee and settles on one of the comfortable chairs on the other side of her desk. She warms her fingers on the outside of the cup, then sips. It's delicious, perfect, sweet with just a bit of a bite in the aftertaste.
"Just more leads." They've changed the shape of the supernatural world, but it's strange how very much the same it all feels. "Have you heard from Faith? How's the demon uprising in San Francisco?"
"Taken care of. Faith said you put together a good squad."
"She really said that?"
"In her own Faith way, yes." That makes Buffy smile. Everything about this situation makes her smile, a perfect cup of coffee, talented Slayers patrolling the world, and these friendly and productive moments with Angel.
"I need to do something fun." Buffy puts her computer to sleep. "Want to go for a ride down to the beach?"
Angel takes a long drink from his cup and stands. "Would you like to take my convertible?"
"Duh. Why else would I invite you?" But she grins to take the sting out of her words.
"Let me get my keys."
Buffy watches him walk away. It's a good angle for him and she keeps smiling. Back right after she buried Sunnydale -- and Spike and her mother's grave and the house and a town's worth of memories -- and showed up on his doorstep with a bus full of new Slayers, they'd agreed to work together for awhile. Then they were friends.
Now she wants more. They've both changed so much, they've both lost so much. She keeps hoping, maybe this time and I love you on her tongue, but hasn't said anything, not yet.
The moon is a couple days past full and if they head far enough out of town, the beach will be gorgeous, soft sand and moonlight on the waves and peace in the darkness. It's amazing the way she knows so many nasty things that go bump in the night and yet she can relax in it still.
Angel's back. "I'm ready whenever you are," he says and tosses her his car keys. Buffy fingers the cool metal keychain and laughs, giddy with building anticipation. She's got a cross at her throat and a stake strapped to her thigh and if her shoes are too uncomfortable to wear while driving, she'll go barefoot instead.
And the whole time, Angel will be sitting right by her side.
The house is quiet when they come in from patrolling. Buffy sends Kendra up to her bedroom while she heats milk for hot chocolate. They even have the little marshmallows she loves and she takes the whole bag upstairs.
Kendra's sitting on the floor in the middle of the room. Buffy rolls her eyes and puts both mugs on her bedside table.
"You don't have to sit down there," she says. "That's what the bed's for."
"I didn't want to get it dirty." Kendra picks at her boots.
"Yeah, the vamp dust gets everywhere, doesn't it?" Buffy grabs a spare t-shirt and pair of soft cotton shorts for her. "Here, put these on. You can get cleaned up in the bathroom." She shows her where everything is and while Kendra's gone, quickly puts on her own pajamas.
She's curled up in bed with her hot chocolate when Kendra comes back carrying her regular clothes neatly folded. She puts them on the chair and Buffy pats a spot on the bed. "Sit," she orders. "Drink. Relax."
Kendra sits gingerly and sniffs her mug, her face twisted with doubt, but when she gives it a try, the rich chocolate makes her smile. Buffy drinks the melted marshmallows off the top of hers and dumps in another handful.
They talk for awhile about Slayer things and it's so surprisingly nice and comfortable Buffy finds herself hugging her knees so she doesn't start an impromptu dance party. It's way too late at night for that, she doesn't want to wake her mom.
She's still not always used to being the only girl in all the world and now she's not. Now there's Kendra and they have different strengths and know different things, but the strength when they drive stakes into hearts is the same, the flexibility as they bend and twist into kicks and punches, the rush after a good slay, the pulse of destiny and dying young in their veins, all that's the same.
When she's done with her hot chocolate, Buffy sets aside the mug and stretches out, her pillow scrunched under her head, feet twisted in the blanket so her cold toes warm. Kendra finishes too and puts her mug with Buffy's.
"Can you hit the light?" Buffy asks around a yawn, then it's dark and bed is really comfortable and Kendra's breathing is steady and slow next to her.
Kendra rolls onto her side and the bed creaks. "How can you love a vampire? It goes against everything we are, right down to our bones, our blood."
"He's not just a vampire," she says and curls her arms around her pillow. "He's got a soul."
"He drinks blood. He must avoid the sun. He is still vampire."
Buffy's sigh turns into a yawn. "Okay, yes, but he's more than that. I love him because he's Angel. He's a vampire, but he's more, too."
As she thinks about it, she realizes she loves him because she loves who he is, but also she really likes who she is around him. It makes her feel very settled in herself and very grown up, to be thinking about the whys behind what she does.
Kendra mumbles something and it's clear she's fallen asleep, leaving Buffy alone to squeeze her pillow and think about all the things she can't change and how little those things matter in the face of love.
An army of Slayers comes in really handy sometimes. During an apocalypse, of course, that's their time to shine, but a lot of them aren't too bad in the kitchen, either. Buffy oversees their work -- Real butter for the potatoes! and Someone grab the peas, they're looking mushy! and Pie crusts aren't supposed to be burnt! -- and pretends to ignore the whispered dictator she catches a couple times.
Thanksgiving is serious business around Slayer Headquarters.
Xander tries to get her to relax and let the younger Slayers have their way -- especially since some of them can cook, he teases -- but she shrugs him off and he leads a group to the television so they'll be out of the way.
Dawn and her squad are running late and Buffy paces the kitchen when everyone's done cooking, worried the food will get cold and dry before they show up. Angel catches her there, the only room downstairs with walls and a door, everything else is open plan, the only way they can fit so many people in the same place for the meal.
He loops his arms across her shoulders and holds her, back against his chest, his body bent around hers. "Happy Thanksgiving." His voice is soft, quiet, and he presses a kiss against her temple.
His skin is slightly cool when she puts her hands on his arms. He's been outside then, making sure no monsters lurk around hoping to get lucky. Some find so many Slayers in one place a temptation they can't ignore, even though it always, always leads to death.
Buffy ducks her head, kisses his forearm.
Thanksgiving makes her miss all the people she's loved and lost -- her mother and Kendra and Merrick and Pike and Tara and Anya and Riley and Spike and her father and every fallen Slayer takes a little piece of her love too -- but she names their names only to herself.
Angel kisses the top of her head and she relaxes into him. He's been on her list a few times and she's very thankful now he's not, now he's standing with her, solid and real.
She lifts her hands, presses her fingers to his cheek, and holds him in place.
"I'm thankful for you," she says, even though they're supposed to make a list of all the things which make them thankful and leave them in this little decorated box so everyone can read them throughout the day if they want.
He squeezes her in a tight hug, not afraid of breaking her. Just like she's no longer afraid of breaking his curse. Even if the happiness clause still exists -- and after everything, she's not sure it does -- he's lost so much in such a short time, he's finally grown up and changed. They both know even the best happiness is tempered by the sadness they carry with them, the loss, the failures.
There was a day a few years ago, when she stopped the work she was doing and took the time to just look at him. He's lived so long, but first as a petulant boy trying to upset his father and then as a soulless vampire trying to impress his creator and then as a souled vampire crippled by his guilt. He never really had a chance to grow up.
He looks younger than she does now and it's fitting. She looks at who they both were when they first met and she understands why their relationship was so fraught and painful and why they kept making mistakes. They were both emotional teenagers forced to act like adults.
She's grown-up now, after dying twice and raising Dawn and saving the world a lot.
Buffy twists around in Angel's arms, puts her hands on his waist, and rests her head against his chest. He hugs her and it feels so good.
"B!" Faith's voice comes ringing through the first floor. "Dawn's squad just pulled up. I'm starving, let's eat!"
In a second, a handful of girls will come rushing in to grab the last of the food. They'll have to work around her, she decides, because right then she has something more important to do.
Standing in their kitchen, in the home they've built, the Slayer headquarters they run, Buffy lifts her head and kisses Angel with all her love and thanksgiving on her lips.
"What are you thankful for, Buffy?" Joyce reaches out to stroke to her daughter's hair. Buffy flinches before she can catch herself. She's sporting a couple big bruises and the darkness outside has her twitchy. To cover it, she grabs her mom's hand and swings their arms back and forth.
"That you make the best turkey," Buffy says and laughs. After a second, Joyce laughs too and nudges Buffy toward the table.
"Then we should eat my delicious turkey," she says. Buffy grabs the back of her chair, but hesitates, glancing toward the front door. She doesn't know where her dad is. He's out there somewhere in the darkness where the vampires lurk and kill.
"Come on, Buffy." Joyce's smile trembles. "Let's eat. We can have a movie marathon after. What do you want to watch? Horror movies?"
"No." Buffy sits so her mom will stop hovering. "Something funny."
Her skin crawls and she looks at the window. If she squints, she can look past the reflection on the glass and she doesn't think there's anyone standing outside. She's not great at sensing vampires, but it feels like one's out there somewhere.
Joyce fills their plates but Buffy picks at her food. "It's delicious," she promises and it's true, but it all goes to salt on her tongue. It's dark and her dad isn't home and she's the only girl in all the world who's supposed to kill vampires.
If she doesn't say it, maybe it's not true.
"Happy Thanksgiving," she tells her mother and when they watch movies after, Joyce strokes Buffy's hair.
Outside, in the darkness, Angel lurks, not yet thinking of love, but soon.
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Rating: For all ages.
Summary: There are many ways to hurt and even more to love.
Notes: Splits away from canon after Buffy season seven. Buffy season eight comics and Angel season five do not exist.