Title: Imaginations of Her
Disclaimer: This is me borrowing.
Summary: Several years down the road...
Big thanks: to lillianmorgan and tkp for the extremely helpful beta work!
She'll be thirty in less than a month, and she wonders what she's really accomplished over the years. Especially now, especially here. She stands in a graveyard, again, only half listening as the reverend makes his speech about the whereabouts of the soul of her sister, a young woman who will never be thirty.
Five, ten years ago, she would have blamed herself for this. She would have drowned in the guilt of not being there to stop it. But now she knows – this time she knows she can't be there for every fight. Dawn knew the dangers she could face; she knew the precautions she'd have to take to stay alive. But she didn't take those precautions, and now she's gone.
Giles touches his hand to her shoulder, offering support and reminding her that he's there, which she had actually forgotten. He's the only one here who might understand what she's feeling right now. Everyone else in attendance has known Dawn five years or less.
Out of the corner of her eye she notices a shadow moving beneath the shade of a tree some distance away, and she suddenly feels less alone.
He approaches her after most of the guests at the reception have left.
"How did you know?" she asks quietly, not looking up from the floor. A long moment passes and he doesn't respond. She finally looks up to meet his eyes. He's gazing at her steadily and silently, his expression unreadable. "It was just your lurking tendencies, wasn't it?" She sighs, knowing he won't have any sort of normal explanation for knowing what's going on in her life years after the last time they spoke.
"You haven't cried yet," he observes, taking the seat next to her.
"Will that do any good? Will that bring her back?"
He nods. "It would do some good."
She looks at him again, gives him a long and steady gaze. After so many years have gone by, after so much of her life has changed, it's partly a shock and partly a comfort to see his face untouched by time. "Your vampy senses are on the fritz," she comments at last. "I have cried – just not today."
"You and Giles were the only ones that came. Where are the others? Willow, Xander?"
She almost looks like she's tempted to smile. "You knew about Dawn somehow, but you don't know about them. Wonder how that one got by you."
He can't hide the surprise that shows on his face. "They're… gone?"
She does break into a small smile, a smile that doesn't reach her eyes, at his worried tone. "No. At least, I don't think so. I, uh, I haven't spoken to them in a long, long time. The old phone numbers I have weren't–" She pauses. "Well, I didn't really know how to track them down to let them know."
"Don't be," she responds. "People drift. That's life." She looks around and notices that other than the hired help, they're the only ones left. "I have to help clean up." He nods but doesn't say anything.
She hesitates before saying goodbye or getting up to leave, and he saves her from awkwardness by adding, "I'm in town for a few more days. Would you meet me tomorrow? For coffee?"
She remembers an offer of coffee from years ago and a shadow of her former self is tempted to leave him hanging, tell him maybe. But she isn't a kid anymore. After everything they've been through, she knows she couldn't play games with him even if she wanted to.
"Pick me up after sundown?" she replies. "I have a feeling you already know where I'm staying."
He promises he'll be there, and she leaves him to talk to the caterer. She looks over her shoulder and he's gone – another reassurance that some things never change.
The conversation over coffee feels like a useless continuation of their encounter the day before, but light, meaningless banter is what she needs now. Talking about heavier issues can wait.
Still wondering how much of her life he's really followed over the years, she asks, "Did you know I was married?"
She remembers a time when that topic didn't qualify as light conversation, but it doesn't bother her so much anymore.
"Yes," he answers. She can't read his face, whether or not there's any jealousy, anger, acceptance there. "And divorced within the year."
She shakes her head wonderingly. "How do you…?"
He smiles. "It's one of my favorite past times, keeping tabs on you. For the big things."
"Do you have a spy?" she asks, adding a slight note of teasing to her tone, but she's genuinely curious.
He gives her a smug grin. "Do you think I need to hire someone to do my dirty work? I like watching you."
"Well, that's… creepy!" she responds, but only half-heartedly. She likes it when he watches.
"Well, I am a vampire."
"But you didn't know that I wasn't in touch with Willow and Xander," she points out.
"I can't watch all the time." His expression is less amused now.
She nods. "No. People to save and all that." She backtracks suddenly, "He was normal."
"Your husband?" he asks.
"Yeah. That's why… It just doesn't work. It never works, with them."
He nods. He knows now that when he left her all those years ago he made the right decision, but it was naïve of him to think that she could have a normal, happy life just because he was gone. He also knows that this isn't his fault, or his responsibility.
"He left after… I got him hurt. I put him in danger." She isn't looking at him anymore. She's staring into nothingness, lost in the past, and suddenly she remembers why this topic has never been one for light conversation. She snaps out of her daze, and looks back to him. "And I don't know anything about what you've been up to all these years."
"No, you don't."
She pauses, gives him time to add an explanation that doesn't come, and then asks, "And you're not going to fill me in?"
He just smiles softly. No, he's not.
She looks around the five-star restaurant. "I know you're spoiling me, but I can't work up the motivation to argue. I really like this place."
"I really like your dress," he counters.
Her face brightens at the compliment, and for the first time he notices the beginnings of crow's feet at the edges of her eyes. He's reminded that she's not the young girl that he once knew, and it makes him smile.
She sees the smile and asks, "What are you thinking?"
"You're getting older," he replies cheerfully.
She frowns. "Well, thanks for noticing."
"Don't be offended," he says, reaching across the table to take her hand. "It's beautiful. It's what I always wanted for you."
"I guess I'm older now than you… were. Right?" She pulls her hand back slightly. That old nagging fear that she's never admitted to having is back. The fear that one day, when she's aging and he's not, he'll look at her and see that everything he'd ever found attractive in her is gone. But it's stronger now because it's not some distant "someday" fear; it's here. She meets his eyes finally, worriedly, and the warmth she sees in them instantly calms her fears.
"Yes. I guess you are."
"This isn't my idea of a great date," he grumbles, and she tries not to giggle at the near-pout on his face.
"This isn't a date," she throws back at him. She suddenly stops and looks at him questioningly, wondering if maybe she's wrong about that. She hasn't been thinking so much about what they've been doing here, but they have been seeing each other every day since the funeral. "Is it?"
He frowns slightly. "I wouldn't call hunting demons or hanging out in cemeteries exactly the perfect scenario for romance, no."
She gives him a sidelong grin. "This used to be our regular romantic Friday night. Or have you forgotten what things were like all those years ago? Are you telling me you weren't pulling out all the stops to woo me?" Her tone is more wistful than the teasing she intended.
They walk a little further into the quiet shadows, and drop their voices accordingly so they don't give away their location. He's not teasing, either. "I thought that you thought 'wooing' was archaic. And I did the best I could given our lifestyles and responsibilities – and there he is."
Her gaze follows his extended finger and upon sighting the demon, she rushes forward into action.
"I'm definitely taking you out to dinner again tomorrow night to make up for this," he sighs, moving forward to join her.
"Oh, come on," she laughs over her shoulder, simultaneously giving the demon a punch that throws him several feet away from her. "You know you love this part."
A smile spreads across his face as he lands his first blow of the evening. "You know, I really do."
"Let's talk about Dawn."
She lets out a long, weary breath, and takes a seat opposite him. "Okay. What do you want to say?"
He shakes his head. "I'm sorry, let me rephrase: You talk, I'll listen."
She pointedly avoids meeting his eyes and begins fiddling with the zipper of her sweater. "I don't really have anything to say."
He is silent in reply and after a few long moments she is compelled to look up at his face. His gaze is unwavering and contains only the necessary minimum of sympathy. He won't give in until she talks, and she knows it.
She doesn't have the energy to fight this. She breaks. "I feel like there's this hole inside me now. I miss her laugh. I miss the way she was always getting into trouble. I miss having someone to protect. I miss having someone look up to me, even though she was unquestionably an adult by the end, not to mention taller than me since practically forever." She lets out a laugh, but it doesn't cover the tears pooling in her eyes. "I want to run my fingers through her hair and tell her that I preferred it when it was longer. I want to meet the man that she'd want to spend the rest of her life with and make sure he knows how lucky he is to have her, and how much he'd suffer if he ever broke her heart. Most of all, I really don't want to be talking to you about all this. I want to be talking to her."
He reaches his hand out for hers, even though she's not asking for comfort, not yet. "I think you're doing well at getting it out, all the same."
She chuckles a bit and reassures him, "Don't get me wrong. You're a good alternative. The best alternative."
He gives her hand a soothing squeeze and that's all it takes to open the flood-works at last. The tears fall freely down her cheeks and she chokes out, "I miss my baby sister. I don't want her to be gone."
He doesn't tell her he knows, he doesn't tell her that it's okay, because she doesn't need to hear that and it's really not. He simply pulls her tightly towards him and lets her cry in his arms, because she doesn't have many people left in her life who will just do this, who will just be here, who will just hold her while she cries.
He sleeps by her side that night and she wakes up just before daybreak to find him gone. A small smile appears on her face and remains there as she goes through her normal morning routine.
He takes a seat across from her. They're meeting for coffee again, and he nearly kicks himself as he checks his watch, thinking he's late because there are already two finished mugs in front of her. He relaxes only slightly when he realizes that he's a minute early; she was just much earlier.
"How much longer are you staying?" she asks, and he realizes that they have completely given up the pretense of small talk. He was hoping to bring this up gradually, sugarcoat it, but she's not giving him that chance.
"Tomorrow," he answers.
She nods slightly, her face not giving anything away. She's not going to show him neediness, regret or sorrow. He wants to say something else, get her to show some reaction, but the waiter approaches to take his order.
She surprises him by waving the waiter away, saying that they're not ready yet, and then turns to him. "Do you want to walk instead? I don't feel like sitting here anymore."
He nods wordlessly. They leave and walk in companionable silence for several minutes. He notices they're passing through a graveyard yet again, not a stop on a usual couple's romantic walk, but then there's never been anything usual about them. Only then does he realize that she's stopped walking, and he has to backtrack a few steps before giving her a questioning glance.
"I don't know if you've noticed, but I don't really have anyone in my life right now," she says, point blank.
He hates thinking of her alone. In his imaginations of her when they've been apart, she's never lonely, never sad. She's never looked the way she does now. "You have –"
"Giles. I have Giles, and he went back to England two days ago. I had Dawn, and now she's dead. And if I'm going to be totally honest with myself, I didn't really have her in my life all that much before she died, either. I haven't – I haven't been connecting with anyone in a really long time, and when I do, it feels like work." She takes a shaky breath. It's been awhile since she's been this honest, this exposed. "But with you – with you it's never been work. It's always just been there, this thing between us. I mean, I hadn't seen you in, what, eight years? And you show up and within three days you're the only one I can really open up to."
He hesitates for just a moment, waiting to see if she'll add more, before asking, "So what are you saying?"
She shakes her head. "I'm not saying anything. I'm not telling you, I'm not demanding anything, I won't beg, I'm just asking. I'm asking you to stay."
"Stay?" he echoes. "Here?"
She reaches out and takes his hand. "Well, no, not here, because I'm not going to be here much longer. Just stay – wherever I am."
He stares at their joined hands for a long moment. He wants to tell her that he'd love to stay with her, that he'd follow her anywhere she asked, if he thought it was what she really needed. But him in her life has never been what she's needed. He's about to tell her he can't, tell her that he's sorry and that he wishes he were different, but he makes the mistake of looking back up to her eyes first. He looks into her eyes and suddenly it's clear that now, at least this one time, him in her life is exactly what she needs. She needs to feel loved again. She's hurting; she's lost her way.
In his imaginations of her when they've been apart, she's never looked the way she does now. She's never lonely, never sad.
He'll do anything to make sure that the next time he has to leave, his imaginations of her will be aligned with his last memories of her.
He nods, silently makes a promise. She smiles.