"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
Old Time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying."
--Robert Herrick, 'To the Virgins to Make Much of Time.'
Does your hand linger too long on her skin? Does your gaze drink in her green-flecked eyes and her upturned pink lips like you've been without water for months? You don't know. You don't care.
Her body is warm to the touch...soft. Not cold and stiff and lifeless in your arms as you sob, quietly, into the scratchy material of her black burial dress. She hugs you back...clasps you so tight that your ribs shriek protest and thank God at the same time.
And there is no room for tears. Just the breath catching in your throat as you memorize her beautiful face, her teasing voice, her bright, shining light, all over again. It can't be real...it can't be...but you won't take the chance that she'll evaporate into a dream...or a nightmare. "It's ... you're a ..."
"A miracle?" she offers, with a lopsided smile.
You can barely make the words come out...words from your heart that you never dared speak before. You nod, tenderly. "Yes...but, then, I've always thought so."
And that is all that really matters.
The cheerful sheets don't fit the couch. Neither do you, really. Your feet hang over the side and one hand trails across the carpet rhythmically as you try to call sleep forth from the ether. Willow has gone off to her lover's arms...to her safe world where she is right and honorable and perfectly justified in her unbearable stupidity.
And you are left behind in reality.
And reality is cold and dark...and most certainly not safe.
You remember the defiant glare in her dark eyes. The once-innocent computer nerd who used to worship the very ground you walked on--and whom you secretly ached for in return--has long since disappeared. In her place is someone you barely recognize. Except for the blackness permeating her aura...eating away at her soul.
That, you recognize all too well.
That, you once called "Ripper."
You once brought something forth that nearly destroyed you several times over. There is no telling what Willow has called forth. And whom it will destroy...whom it has all ready destroyed.
If she has pulled Buffy Summers back in fragments...in pieces...to a Hell on earth...you think you might very well have to kill her.
You are, after all, not so distanced from death. From blood.
He lives beneath your polished, stuttering exterior.
And he yearns to come out and play.
Her peach-vanilla scent signals her arrival even before you feel the barest pressure on the edge of the couch. It would have to be her scent, you think...because she could sit on your legs for an eternity and you wouldn't feel it. She may be the One Girl in All the World Called to Fight the Darkness...but she eats like a rabbit.
Or at least she used to.
You have no idea what she's been eating lately.
Besides earth and worms and sorrow.
She looks like a porcelain doll in the twilight. All big, round eyes and pale face. Fragile and precious and rare. Like something you want to put up on a shelf and save for years to come.
But you know she is stronger than she looks. The faded scars on her palms, under her barely-healed fingernails, are a testament to her vitality, her determination. Her unbreakable humanity. She does not belong on a shelf. This is what no man she's ever known has been able to comprehend.
No man save you.
She doesn't belong on a shelf...she belongs in the world, in the sun, in the universe. And, if you dare even consider it, in your arms.
You sit up, slowly, noting that your paperback novel is half-open on your chest and your glasses have, apparently, taken a holiday somewhere not in arm's reach. "B-buffy...what is it?" you murmur, with the appearance of sleep and not a single hint of worry or guilt...or...lust.
Years have given you the subtlety that Willow lacks. The perfect bumbling cover for your arrogance. You are a better actor than your precious Scoobies could ever dream. Than your precious Buffy could ever imagine.
She reaches across the sheet with her too-slender hand...grasps your fingers and you are jolted by the touch. The first time she has willingly touched you since you embraced at the Magic Box...for, since then, she was always just a few inches, a few feet, out of reach. Distant by choice...or perhaps by circumstance. "I'm sorry."
"Wh-whatever for?" The novel slides to the floor...bounces...and you spy your glasses beneath the coffee table...but you do not move to get them. You see her all too clearly without them. And she is so painfully lovely that you have to wonder, once more, if you are back in your flat in Bath and ensconced in fitful fantasies of what will never be your life again.
Before you can even process it...she is leaning forward. Her lips gently brush yours and you know you will never forget the whispery taste of her kiss. That you will play it over and over a thousand times until you are older and grayer and unable to eat solid foods.
"I'm sorry that they made *you* come back here, too."
When you blink, all that is left is the lingering bouquet of peaches and cream...and your own wonder. And the reckless, selfish boy inside you who wants to chase your Slayer up the stairs and crush her close...and never let her go.
When you speak to her of her mother's household skills...you do it with the taste of regrets in your mouth and a throbbing forehead. You remember making love to Joyce twice...lost in the charmed passion of misspent youth and repressed adulthood. You admired the woman. You admired her resolve. You admired her tenacity, her devotion to her child...and then her children.
You were saddened by her death. You are saddened by most deaths. Even the ones you have to mete out yourself.
But losing Buffy nearly tore you apart. You walked around like a ghost for months, floating through walls and doors and only half-hearing the living beings around you. And you have never laid more than a casual hand on her. You know you never will.
Even as you watch her, now, bent over a stack of bills...her childish pout turning into a womanly frown of concentration...you know you will cherish her, adore her, love her, till the end of your days. The end of her days.
The end of time itself.
And that is the greatest miracle of all.
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