She hadn't slept since the day they had conquered the hellmouth. She never said anything to him but the small flat that they shared on the shores of Florence, Italy was small and the walls were paper thin. On the rare occasion that she did sleep, she would dream of young girls --slayers-- falling dead all around her. When the exhaustion was unbearable and she lost to her slumber, Buffy Summers dreamt about all of the girls that the Hellmouth had swallowed. She was a woman; the slayer - a general in the army, bearing the guilt for all the young girls that she had sentenced to their death. The guilt for all the young women who would die still.
Yet, bathed in the pale glow of the waxing moon, she looked like just another one of them. Her long blonde tresses hung loose about her shoulders, stray strands blowing about in the blustery wind. Her eyes, as blue as the rolling waves before her contrasted in an ethreal sense with the whites of her eyes and the tanned color of her complexion. She seemed gentille and waif like even in baggy gray sweat pants and a clinging white tank top. She'd lost weight, they both had. Guilt and mourning were a punishing combination and offered little in the way of normal functioning. After all that they'd suffered through, eating just didn't seem like a priority.
On the surface, it appeared that he had suffered the most. He'd lost a considerable amount of weight within only a few months, now around the same weight he had been while attending his final year of Sunnydale High. His left eye, which had been lost during the fight with Caleb, had been replaced by the Willow-y wand of the red-haired wiccan. His hair was not as long as he had worn it before they left the Hellmouth. Change, it seemed, was a resonable thing to occur after you take part in a battle that swallowed your entire hometown.
Yet still, they survived. Survived together, survived alone. The Scooby Gang had split after escaping the hellmouth. Giles and Dawn were in England, where Dawn was attending Private School and Giles was over-seeing the construction of the new 'Watcher's Council'. Or, more aptly titled 'Slayer's Council' fronted by the two longest living Slayer's in history. Willow and Kennedy were last heard from in Spain, tracking down the newly activated Slayer's and sending them to England. And, Andrew had tagged along after Faith and Robin, who'd gone to guard the Hellmouth in Cleavland.
That left Buffy and Xander alone; together. And it was by the simple inner workings of Xander's mind, the memory of a conversation he had with Buffy that brought them to Florence. A place that Buffy had once told him she'd always wanted to visit. It was something so simple that had brought him out onto the balcony that night. It was something so simple that had brought them together to share something so difficult.
" It's late. Why aren't you sleeping? " Her voice was wavering. It was obvious to Xander that she had dreamt again tonight.
" Slept enough. Not sleepy anymore. " He answered simply. " What's your excuse? "
The silence that swallowed them spoke volumes, spoke the words that Buffy had never been able to force herself to say before tonight. In a tentative gesture he reached out and grasped her hand. She made no noise of protest as she would have in the earlier years of their friendship. He knew it was because she needed to be comforted almost as much as he did. She settled in the silence for a moment, searching her mind for the words to express that day and the way she'd been re-living it every night the seventy-three that had followed.
" I dreamt about them again, Xand. All those girls that the Hellmouth swallowed. They could've been slayers and now... "
" And now, they're dead. " He cut in, his voice firm. " And because of you, hundreds of others live. You saved them. Death... that's the sacrifice we make. "
" Saved them? " Her voice was louder, stronger but still wavering. Almost hysterical. " I sentenced them. We sentenced them. And to what? To the life I had to lead. To an unwanted feeling of superiority, to feeling alone? To have to risk their lives every night and never being thanked for all the lives they save? Xander, I was lucky. I had you guys but what about the other girls? The girls who have to be the law, who have to fight and sweat and bleed and die. The only thing we did was sentence a bunch of girls to an early grave. I could've done it, should've shouldered the responsibility until the day I died. "
" Buffy. You died, twice. I think you've shouldered enough responsibility for ten lifetimes. You saved the entire world so many times.. "
" No. I didn't. We saved the world, I'm not the chosen one, anymore, remember? I'm not special so why should I take all the credit? "
I'd never thought about it before. I'd been so obsessed by the fact that I'd never had and never would have any super powers. I was used to being the regular joe among the league of heroes, so living like a regular person was natural for me. But Buffy had always been singled out, exhalted. And although the burden she had carried was brutal, she'd been the slayer. The chosen one. She had all of the power and now she was just one of who knows how many girls. She just had to live.
Xander kneeled in front of Buffy and reached for the hand he was not already holding. Gently, he tugged her into a sitting position in front of him and his vivid brown eyes bore into her beautiful face and even though she avoided it, his gaze was truthful and loving.
" You aren't special? " Xander queried. " Buffy, you've died. TWICE. You've faced... what, ten apocalypses? You've been fighting evil almost nightly since you were fifteen years old. It's because of you that Willow was able to change the destiny of girls everywhere. It is because of you that girls all over the world, who were being bullied or abused or degraded can stand up. You've empowered these girls, Buffy and because of that, I can trust that this world will be a better place. "
He laughed then, his laugh. The Xander laugh. " You aren't special? Buff, you are the greatest slayer that ever existed. "
Buffy was staring at him now, her eyes wide and brimming with un-shed tears. Slowly, Xander reached up to stroke her cheek and caught the lone tear that had fallen. Her eyes closed at his touch and she seemed to sway for a moment, loving him in this moment. Loving him for everything that he was and all that he'd done and lost for her and loving him for all that he was still doing for her. Slowly, her eyes opened again and she faced him, wearing a face similar to the one she'd sported on her first day of college when she'd met him at the bronze.
" Tha-.. "
He placed a finger to her lips and silenced her. In silence, he knew. The bond that existed between them was gratifying enough. Words could not enhance it.
The Slayer tested out a smile; a welcome change to the look of self-hatred that'd hosted her face for so long now. They embraced, Xander holding Buffy in his arms as she turned around and lay her head of flaxen blonde locks against his shoulder as they leaned against the railing of the balcony and gazed up at the brillance of the stars. Silence held them now, cradled them; no longer responsible for the considerable distance that had mounted between them.
In silence, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fell asleep in her best friends arms. Content, at least for a little while. And when the chill of the night grew so great that she began to shiver in her slumber, Xander picked her up and gently placed her into the comfort of her bed. Standing tall above her, Xander finally saw again not only the strength and courage but the vunerablity and innocence in Buffy that he'd fallen in love with so long ago. As the young man bent down gently to brush a stray strand of hair from her eyes and kiss her forehead, he knew without a doubt that her dreams would not be filled with the screams of girls being murdered.
Xander Harris turned to go.
A small but powerful hand clasped around his wrist, preventing any further movement on his part. Xander snapped his gaze downward, prepared for anything after seven years of fighting but his gaze softened as he saw Buffy staring up at him, her eyelids already drooping with all the sleep she'd deprived herself from for so long. When she spoke, her voice was barely audible. But Xander knew the words. He'd dreamt her saying them so often for so long that he would have heard her if she'd lost her voice... again.
" Xand. Can you stay with me? I don't really want to be.. "
He silenced her again by walking around the bed and slipping under the covers with her. His head eased into the pillows as her own eased against his chest. His arms surrounded her but did not constrain her. And as they both began to surrender to sleep, Buffy's hand slowly ventured across the smooth planes of Xander's arm until it reached his and she manuevered her fingers until their hands lay entertwined. And for the first time since such a stifling tragedy, their last thoughts before falling alseep were not for their dead lovers, so painfully missed but for them. Buffy and Xander's thoughts were for the future.