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by Bobbi Manuel


You watch her, nothing new there. You've been watching her since the second you first saw her, sometimes for real, sometimes only in your dreams. These days you can do it right out in the open, and when she catches you she smiles. A beautiful smile, her real one, the one that makes her look young and without a care in the world. It never lasts long enough though. All too soon the weight of the world comes right back to the forefront to start slowly crushing her into the ground.

You hate that – those all too brief glimpses into who she could be, what the world could be, maybe even how life is supposed to be. Because you can't do anything about any of that, instead you can only watch the woman you love carry more responsibility than anyone ever has, and you ache for her.

You do whatever you can, have even learned to do more than that over the years, but it's never enough. It will never be enough. Not even if you figured out how to make everything shift to you, if you somehow found the way to flip a switch and make yourself the leader. Because she's the leader and she always will be. She was born to it and she was going to die to it until the day she couldn't get back up.

But that day's not today, it's probably not tomorrow either, so you sit in the shade and watch her checking in with everybody around the camp. She's making sure the job is getting done, she's encouraging the troops to keep going, assuring them that the fight's not only a worthy one, but a battle that can be won somewhere soon down the line. Everyone knows that's a lie, but when it comes out of her mouth with her eyes looking straight into yours, there's no way it's a lie. It can't be.

The wind catches her hair just right and you watch as her beauty, the strength and goodness she has an abundance of, floats around her, swirling everyone she's near into its comforting embrace. And you see their shoulders unslump, see their backs straighten with renewed energy, honest smiles returned to her as she speaks, touches, looks, and somehow makes it better for everyone. She makes it seem like there's hope.

You watch as she grabs two bottles of water and heads over to you, noticing every line on her as she gets closer. You can see the pain she carries, the loved ones lost, those people she finds it almost impossible to live without. You remember the days and nights when they were taken from her forever, the hurt and pain, the fear and devastation. The terror you felt that this would be the time, the one that would prove too much, the loss that would finally bring about the end for you both.

Because you long ago accepted the fact that you can't make it without her, that's just the way it is…the way it's always been. It took you a long time to admit that – first to you, then to her, and it took her a while longer to accept it, to understand just what it meant. You would always remember the night when it happened, when the stars lined up just right, when your whispered…

"I love you."

…wasn't shrugged aside, evaded, ignored, joked away. When crystal clear hazel eyes met yours and didn't drift off. When a strong hand came up to caress your cheek, then firmly grasp your jaw and hold you still as the sweetest, softest lips met yours. When your breath mingled with hers, when the moment was so intimate, you started to cry one slow tear at a time. When her tongue slid along yours with such delicate care, such concern, you wondered if she loved you back, and when she eased away only to pull you down on top of her, you knew you had the best shot you'd ever had.

Then it was all lost in the moment, when feeling was all there was. You remember how she was like nothing you'd ever experienced: her smell, her taste, the sounds she made, the way she touched you, the way she was with you. It was all you'd imagined, but different. Closer, rougher, softer, just more in a way that made it hard to believe in. And yet you did believe, and you came alive as you never had before.

When you rolled apart, she didn't go far. Her head came to rest on your shoulder, her arm and leg wrapping across you as if she'd done it a million times, and you wouldn't have moved if death was closing in even faster than it already was. Her hand rubbed slowly right under your breast, and the stars were out and it was still warm enough to enjoy the weather. It was clear, inside your head and heart as well as in the sky, and despite the world having gone to Hell, you felt nothing but happy and peaceful.

She lifted up after awhile, her lips kissing your breast, her tongue swiping over your nipple that was already rising to meet her. She smiled, then moved over on top of you, something you'd never allowed anyone to do before. You never even gave it a thought then, didn't notice anything different had occurred, just that she was there.

"So, F, that was long overdue."

She said it lightly, like a joke, but with the history that still hummed and thrived between you, there was no way to laugh or take it as anything other than what it was. But there was no tension, no guilt, no backpedalling by either of you. There was just an acknowledgement and eyes more green than you'd ever seen them before, looking into yours.

You wrapped your arms around her tight, your head lifting just enough to bring your lips into range, and she didn't let you down. She kissed the living shit out of you with so much passion you knew there was no going back, and when it was over she looked you in the eye again without hiding a single thing:

"I don't know if I can, but…"

You didn't care, you don't care now. All you want is to be there for her, to give her comfort, strength, and help, and if making her feel some kind of pleasure comes along with that, you won't ever ask for more.

"Here, you looked thirsty."

You smile and take the bottle from her as she sits down beside you, your thighs touching, her exhaustion easy to see, at least to you. The heavy losses from two days ago still in her gaze as she stares off into space, so you try to pull her away.

"Thanks. Nothin' better than a cold beer on a warm summer day."

She laughs and brings her eyes back to now, back to you.

"Yep, we are definitely living the life."

You don't talk anymore, just sip your warm water and hope that it got properly sterilized. The sounds of the camp seem like home to you, just another normal day of securing the perimeter, checking the supplies, priming the weapons, and hoping against hope you can catch a little downtime. You need it, the other Slayers need it, the average people tagging along need it, and most of all she needs it.

Not that she'll get it, no matter what's actually happening. She has to coordinate, organize, make assignments, and be one step ahead of an enemy that outnumbers, outguns, and out maneuvers you time after time. Except when they don't, because she's the Slayer and has kept all of you alive way past the point anybody could have ever predicted. There's no sensible explanation for it, but then there never has been when it comes to her. She performs miracles every day, and even when some of you die, it's simply amazing that all of you don't.

You've killed plenty of them, managed to really make it hurt, and those victories always seem impossible and insane, and there have been many. You've heard, seen, and felt the enemy's rage, watched them fall back in fear, their superior numbers meaningless as the Slayer and her ragtag bunch of dwindling survivors outsmart them once again.

No rules followed, no standard moves made, just courage, strength, and a thinking so far outside the box, no one can comprehend it except the woman whose brain has always worked in the unconventional. She's Picasso painting the Sistine Chapel, and you can only marvel and follow along, the years of experience reassuring you and giving you a rock solid confidence in her ability. You go where she says, lead where she directs, jump in and pull back at her command, and you feel not the slightest bit of hesitation or doubt.

You remember when Willow went down, the last of the original Scoobies to fall, and how the scream came not from the dying woman, but from her. It's a sound she still makes in her sleep, although it's quiet now and buried deep inside her.

You were never considered a Scooby, not with your checkered history. You had your chance at that back when you first showed up and you blew it for good in a hundred different ways. It mattered to you, but you learned to be happy with what you could get.

It wasn't what anyone would call inferior, it was just less than. As the years passed you came to understand it, respect it even. You earned their affection, most times you probably even had their love, but no one was allowed into that inner circle, that core group of family that had gone through it all and had still ended up standing side by side.

They lasted a long time, then started falling like rose petals, each one a body blow to her. You were sure you could see the punches as they landed, the deep bone bruises, the pieces of her heart being torn off and tossed to the wind like they didn't mean anything.

Giles gone first, standing tall over Xander's wounded body, you straining to get there, her practically flying as she watched him struck down, swinging and stalling for time as he went. That courage, that delay, just enough to let you both arrive in time to cut down the enemy before they could get Xander too, and enough time for her to cradle her Watcher and hear him say that he loved her and was so proud of her.

"Don't leave me…please."

But the choice wasn't his, and with his final breath he smiled:

"My Slayer."

You ran then, Xander leaning heavily on you, her carrying the body. You went as fast as you could because there wasn't a lot of time or space between you and them. She was the one who set him on fire after one last kiss, his glasses clutched in her hand, her eyes scared and alone, and you could see that something was gone from her that was never coming back. You wanted to say something profound, something that would make a difference: to her, to him, to Xander, to you, but there was nothing, no sound except Xander's tears, the crackling flames, and her silence.

"Bye, G-Man."

Just saying that was hard for you to get out, but you felt her hand slip into yours and it settled you until you could breathe again. You looked at her, saw the loss and grief in her eyes, and then with a final squeeze, she turned "Slayer" and you were on the move again. You made good time even though you both had to take turns carrying Xander when he fell unconscious, a blessing in every way for all of you.

You should have felt relief when you caught up to the main group, the ones she'd sent ahead and out of harm's way, but you tightened up until it felt like you were going to jump out of your skin. Willow and Dawn's eyes swept behind you expectantly, then with confusion as they didn't see what they so desperately needed to. They kept looking until they couldn't anymore, and then they focused on who you still had.  

She avoided them and addressed the others, explaining that casualties had occurred but the mission was a success. Her face looked hard, controlled, no emotion in sight, a leader, but you saw how brittle she was, how close she was to losing it. She hung on though because that's who she is, how she does things, and it was a long time later before she shifted that mask off. You found her staring up at the stars, out of earshot, but with a clear view of the camp in case the unexpected happened.

You said nothing, just sat next to her and held her empty hand, the other still firmly clutching a pair of glasses. You stayed until it was her turn to watch over Xander and yours to watch over her. He went with just the two of you there, talking to Anya and looking nothing but serene.  

Willow never recovered, not that any of you did, but it hit her the hardest. Xander was her touchstone, her one constant, and his loss made it clear to all of you that there were no constants anymore and never would be again. Willow's turn came fast and it came quiet, peaceful in a way, but you can still hear that scream without even trying.

You weren't really surprised that Dawn turned out to be a fighter. She was the sister of the Slayer after all, made out of the Slayer, and she took to battle like it was in her DNA. Her sister had been working with her over the years and now that the end had come, she was more than ready. She was a force to be reckoned with.

You understood the dilemma – how she could never quite see all the way past "kid sister" to just the long, hard muscled body that could turn lethal at a moment's notice, the slim, strong hands ready and able to kill in a variety of ways. She never just saw the daring and ingenuity that was rivaled only by her own, never just focused on how all the years spent striving to be like her had finally led Dawn just as close as she could get.

Instead you knew with every look that she still also saw the kid who stole the last of the milk, the girl who crushed on Xander, the teenager who got on her nerves because she insisted on tagging along, and the young woman she'd willingly died for because she loved her and would always protect her. That was who she sent out on every dangerous mission along with her best fighter, and the price she paid for that each and every time was something that nearly broke you.

Dawn went out like a warrior should, holding down on the blast trigger until her team had escaped and she had drawn in as many of the enemy as she could. Pretending to be what she could still so easily look like – a sweet, young girl just waiting to be rescued. Helpless…an innocent.

They closed in eagerly, each wanting to be the first to get a piece of her, only to find that she wasn't anything like what she appeared to be, that she hadn't been in forever, and you wouldn't have been surprised at all by her final words:

"Hi. I'm Dawn, Dawnie to my family. My sister's the Slayer and you guys blow."

And they did, skyhigh, and when the explosion cut through the silence of the night, she went down to one knee, her face full of horror and despair. You wrapped your arms around her to steady her, but nothing could really steady either of you. Not Slayer strength, not human contact, not even the lie you told so easily it was like you were born to it:

"Doesn't mean it was her."

But you both knew that was exactly what it meant and you both knew she was gone for good, a kid sister and a tough as nails, brave as hell hero. Gone in an instant, the way most everyone went now, unless they lingered waiting for their moment to catch up to them.

"Penny for your thoughts."

You knew that wasn't a real request, she was just pulling you back to the now too. Neither of you wanted the other's thoughts, they were too much like your own. Too sad, too pain filled with loss and fatigue, too jam-packed with the knowledge that the world was ending on your shift and there was nothing you could do to stop it, you could only slow it down.

You put your arm around her shoulders, pull her in close, and kiss the side of her head. The apocalypse is really here, you're dropping like flies, and yet you know you're right where you want to be. Sitting in the shade, leaning against a tree trunk with people milling all around, drinking warm water as you count down the seconds of your life.

You hear her sigh, then feel her relax against you, into you, and you know she feels safe and loved even if it's only for the minute. And that's all you can ever really give her now – just minutes, seconds, maybe merely an instant to feel okay, to feel like life is normal, that she's safe and loved and that she's Buffy Summers…just a girl from sunny California.

The End



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