The house is dark when Buffy gets home, but she knows that Angel is awake. She takes off her shoes and jacket, gets herself a glass of water, and drinks half of it before he speaks.
“Dawn’s asleep.” She doesn’t turn around, but she can picture him precisely, sitting at the counter, staring at his hands, fingers shifting even as he tries to keep still. “She’s nervous for her history test, but we went through her notes together and I think she’s going to do fine.”
She finishes the water. She almost wishes that he had left her a mess to distract herself with - crumbs to sweep, dishes to wash - but truthfully, she’s too tired even to do anything to pretend.
“Thanks,” she manages, and then considers whether she needs to tell him she’s going to bed or if he’ll just intuit if she starts up the stairs. She knows she won’t sleep (she’s been snatching an hour here and there for nearly a week now, so why should tonight be any different?) but she’s so drained, her body wants to at least try.
She compromises, tilting her head in some sort of invitation before she moves toward the stairs. Angel moves behind her, walking easily through the house even in the dark, though she isn’t sure if it's residual ease with the dark even now that he's human, or if he just knows her house so well.
They get ready for bed without touching. A year ago, six months ago even, it wouldn't have been like that. Since Angel had become human her freshman year of college, he'd kept Angel Investigations open, but they had done the long-distance thing pretty well. His schedule was the more flexible, barring demon emergencies, so he ended up in Sunnydale more often than she made it to LA. That whole situation wasn’t exactly the Buffy-friendliest: Angel’s apartment had a queen sized bed, and his room in the Hyperion has a king, and they were both private, versus trying to squeeze Angel into her dorm bed or avoiding her mom’s judgiest eyes. But even with all the Sunnydale hassle, they actually made it work. They found routines and learned each other’s habits (Angel had to either stop picking the mushrooms off his pizza and making a little mushroom pile because there were “too many,” or stop asking to order mushrooms). They grew into a comfort that they’d never had a chance to have before.
Buffy had, without telling anyone, looked at one, maybe two apartments off campus. The night after her twentieth birthday, she’d had a dream where Angel came into the room holding a little girl who they’d called Rose - Rosie - who’d had brown hair and brown eyes and Buffy’s crinkles when she smiled, and hadn’t woken up breathless.
And when Joyce got sick and things started heating up with Glory, Angel had basically become the world racing champion in the Sunnydale-LA category. She’d known that something was going on that was keeping him from staying in Sunnydale full time, but she hadn’t even asked for the whole story. Not when he was there so much, cooking meals and driving Dawn everywhere, not when he almost always stayed to let her spiral down with him at night, somehow finding time to get the perfect thing to leave on the pillow even if he had to be gone by morning.
The crack between them now hurts the most, Buffy thinks, because she didn’t see it coming. The other times, there were signs that she ignored, things they didn’t talk about. But looking back, she remembers Angel’s arms in the cemetery and can’t think of a time she’d pulled away from him after. She remembers Joyce finally telling her that Angel was a good man, and Dawn sleeping under his coat like a shield. She remembers the way he’d looked at her when she’d mentioned that school couldn’t be for her anymore, how supported he had made her feel, how absolutely loved, just from a glance.
And yet as she’d prepared to jump instead of Dawn, underneath the wrench of leaving Dawn and Giles and Willow, everyone, leaving Angel and the miraculous finally of them, there was the relief of a weighty burden dropped, the sweetness of a collapse into rest.
Even the first night after Willow had brought her back, as everyone smiled and touched too much, Angel had seen something wrong in her eyes.
“When you’re ready,” he’d said that night, the two of them skin-close in her bed, “I hope you’ll talk to me.”
She’d kept her eyes closed, and said nothing. She didn’t know how to tell him that there was a weakness now to the feeling of being in his arms.
He hasn’t asked again over the past few weeks, just waits and helps and doesn’t mention going back to his own work any time soon. He’s a silent, wrenching presence in the corners, but she knows that he’s watching her.
As she climbs into bed beside him, he puts his arms around her as always. She tries to remember how precious the familiarity of that should be.
Her eyes avoid the clock by habit (watching the minutes tick by without sleep just makes her tense and blameful) but she can tell it’s been a while. She’s surprised when Angel speaks.
“I thought I knew all the ways to torture a person. But when you can control the mind, control dreams, there’s a whole other world of ways to hurt people.”
They’ve spoken about so many things since they got back together, but he’s still never mentioned his time in hell. His openness, the effort he’s putting into trying to connect with her even when it hurts him, whittles at her heart. She’s felt dry and flimsy, frozen, since she came back, but tears slick out of her eyes now, falling silently into her pillow. Maybe it’s just tiredness.
“I can’t really relate.” She doesn’t really consider the words. Her mouth makes them. Her voice stays flattened. “Or maybe now I can.”
Angel lies still behind her. He breathes. She blinks, and finds more tears in her eyes. “I don't think I was anywhere like you were.”
Angel makes a sound, a quiet, closed-eyed, hit-in-the-stomach sound that even after a thousand nights of fighting side by side she’d never imagined he could make, but there's no surprise in it. He says, “I thought it might be something like that,” and his voice hurts.
“How?” Her voice shakes a little, and there’s something of a relief to that. There must be something inside her, still.
She feels his shrug against her back. “Willow and I fought about it over the summer. I know the Powers can be cruel. They do things we don’t understand, or things that make it all harder. But I got to have time with you with just the normal vampire slayer–ex vampire kind of problems. And I knew that there’s justice and kindness in the universe too. You were the one who started teaching me about it.”
She’s quiet for a long while, the quiet that’s normal for her now, and a new, heavier, considering kind too. She wants it to be better that he knows, but it isn’t.
“I think that I was happy before makes it worse,” she says slowly. “If I had you and Giles and my friends, and Dawn was safe, if everything was back to regularly scheduled Sunnydale, then why does it hurt so much to be back? Because I promise I was happy before, Angel.” She finds herself crying harder now, but keeps her voice from wavering and her shoulders from trembling. She thinks Angel can still tell, even behind her turned back, even without being able to smell the salt of her tears. “Getting another chance here, in this amazing life we get to have, it should have made me happy again.”
He is silent for a while. His silences used to make her so freaked sometimes: What was he thinking about? Was it about something in his past, something that she didn’t know about? Was he thinking about leaving? But now she knows that he’s just thinking and waiting, wanting to say the right thing to her, for her.
“Dawn told me what you said to her, before you…” His muscles tense against her, but he continues. “We talked about you a lot over the summer. And you were right, in a way. Life is hard. Even when we’re happy, it’s hard. We have to work, be good friends and neighbors, take out the trash. Those things can add up, even when you don’t add on the fate of the world sometimes landing in your hands.” There’s nothing in his tone that makes it into a joke, but somehow it makes her breathe out a laugh anyway. “There’s no shame in wanting to let that go, and there’s no shame in having a hard time being forced to pick it all back up again. And I’ll try my best to help you with everything you need, if you’ll just...let me.”
When she turns over to face him, his face is shadowed, hard to see by only the streetlight muffled through the curtains. She presses her fingers to his cheek and they come away wet. “I can’t imagine anyone trying harder to help me than you have,” she says, and she worries that the whisper scratching out of her throat will make him think it isn’t true. And yet she can’t keep the second part from slowly following it. “But I can’t promise that even that will make it better.”
Last year, Angel helped a Marthok demon, sometimes nicknamed a wishing demon, find her lost pet lizard. And in return she’d extracted from his mind something he truly wanted. His strength isn’t quite up to vampire level, but Xander likes to say that he’s definitely leveled back up in his demon ass-kicking.
His fingers, as they grip her wrist, his thumb against the edge of her palm, are dramatically gentle. “I know that there might be nothing I can do to keep you here. But I’m -” He breaks off, clears his throat gruffly. He’s crying anyway. “I’m grateful for every moment that you work to stay here with us.”
And somehow, his gratitude makes a speck of anger in her. Anger at herself, because she knows all the times and all the ways he’s come back to her, crawled and scraped to make something of the shocking, shitty hand he’d been dealt, and still he looks at her like sun, like life. Anger yet at him, for not making a declaration: you cannot leave me. You cannot leave your sister or your friends or this life.
“Do you remember,” she says instead, still soft. Speaking anger takes too much energy, but she cups the spark of it inside her for protection. “Do you remember after the Mohra, when we went to see the Oracles, and you wanted them to turn you back because you wanted to be able to protect me? The whole ‘soldiers of darkness, Slayers go first’ thing?”
“I remember.” A cracked laugh. “I thought about it so much, I was so furious with myself, that I actually mentioned it to Dawn. She didn’t talk to me for three days. And then she told me that being mad about it was stupid because you’d never have been mad or wanted me to trade my life back, and she made me watch Clueless with her again.”
Buffy thinks about how, for so long, this was all she wanted: her and Angel, lying close and warm, truth telling, having him smile as he talked about something Dawn had done. And now she has it and it’s wrong, it’s not enough, she can’t seem to let it make her happy.
“Dawn was right,” she says. “I would never have wanted you to trade this. And I don’t know that putting off the she’s alive moment for a few more years would have made things better.”
“Buffy, I don’t think there’s anything that would have made things better. You got to experience true peace, and then you had it taken away. For something like that, one day at a time might be too much. All I’m asking for is that you try for each minute.”
For one second as they lie in silence, not even Dawn’s breathing audible through the wall, his face opens just enough for her to see the hurt in it, the burden. And she understands how very much it is costing Angel to try not to push her, to just stay there, waiting for her to lean on him.
Her first thought is that she wants to live so he’ll be able to stop looking like that. Her second is that she wants to live so that having him there really does make her happy.
“You’ll be here?” she asks.
“For all of those minutes,” he says. She thinks about all the promises he’s broken to her, the ones he couldn’t help and the ones he could. She decides to believe him.
Her shoulders and knees still fit perfectly as she turns and curves against him. The bed creaks a little.
“Tomorrow,” she says, “maybe we should finally get that Buffy-and-Angel-sized bed we’re always talking about.”
She feels his forehead against her hair, and decides that’s probably a yes. She takes his hand, running fingertips over his knuckles, feeling the scars he’s collected over the past year. She holds his hand as she finally falls asleep.
She’s still holding it as she wakes up the next morning.