When he first saw her, he'd wanted to kiss her. Granted, he was basically immobile and possibly hallucinating, and he stifled the urge immediately, but his first impulse still lingered as he eyed her again.
She was pretty cute. Tiny little thing, just like Fred, but with a steely glint in her eyes and the gait of a seasoned warrior that spoke of a far more dangerous beast. She moved into his room and doctors and nurses parted before her determination, and for a feverish moment, Gunn thought that she was a Valkyrie beckoning him to his grave.
She knelt beside him and put a hand on his limp arm. "Charles Gunn?"
"You got me," he croaked. "If you're from Wolfram and Hart, you can go right now." But he already knew that she wasn't from the law firm, not when she exuded goodness like some of his old coworkers did oily charm.
She sniffed disgustedly. "I can't tell you how Wolfram and Hart I'm not. You still working for them?" Her voice was guarded, and that reassured him far more than her words. Wariness of the law firm was a mark of intelligent, decent people.
He shifted his head in a negative shake. "Went down fighting them."
"Good." And then the fierce look on her face, that cold resolve, slipped away and there was nothing but a grieving young woman before him. "They told me-" She swallowed. "The slayers who came. They told me that you were there when Spike and Angel-"
Oh. He knew exactly who she was in an instant, was genuinely surprised that he hadn't figured it out before. "Buffy."
She nodded, wrapping her arms around herself. She didn't ask how he'd figured it out. "Tell me how they-" Her voice cracked, and she didn't finish the request.
Unbidden, his less damaged hand moved to rest on her arm. "There was a dragon," he said. He'd never been one for sugarcoating death, and she didn't look like she wanted it, not when her eyes were blazing with an intense need to know. "Angel...he ran at it, and naturally, Spike tried to get there first."
"Naturally," she echoed wistfully, her lips quirking in an ironic grin.
"They lived so long, I think they thought they were invincible. I don't think they ever expected that-" He sighed. "The dragon breathed fire, and they were both gone."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that."
She was silent for a long moment. "You know, Spike called me that last day," she revealed.
His interest perked. As far as he'd known, Spike's reluctance to contact the slayer had lasted until his third death. "Really."
"I missed the call." She laughed a bitter little chuckle. "I was at a party- it was already night in Italy. And when I got the voicemail, I came running here, only to find LA in ruins and my vampire gone."
She didn't mention Angel, and Gunn was wisely silent, allowing her to go on until his eyes were closing and he was drifting off to blissful unconsciousness.
She came back the next day, and he tried to be engaging, to keep his only entertainment by his side for as long as she stayed in Los Angeles. And he must have done something right, because she returned again the day after that, and each day afterwards until the end of the week.
He didn't ask her why she was still hanging around, and she didn't offer an explanation. Maybe she was still drawn to the place where she'd lost "her vampire," submerging herself in an endless sea of despair each day. But he knew that path, remembered it well; and he couldn't see that pain in her eyes, that reluctance to talk about the one she loved.
She talked about him a lot.
"You can't tell me that Spike and Harmony weren't hooking up all year!" she exclaimed disbelievingly at his most recent assertion. "I know how Spike gets when he's...cooped up." She shrugged, suddenly shy.
Modesty was adorable on the seasoned slayer (and one who, if the rumors held true, had been far from prudish around Spike), and Gunn hid a grin. "Not that I know of. Just the once. And that ended with bleeding eyes and violence." He frowned, trying to remember. "And something about a cup of Mountain Dew." It felt like years since then. The whole gang, nearly, trying to fight for good in the least hospitable environment possible…sometimes, it all seemed like a fuzzy dream, one far from his reality of sterile rooms and burnt skin and life stolen for him by a blue-haired goddess. "It turned out okay," he said finally. "It always did." Until Fred.
He shrugged it off quickly, uncomfortable with his reflections. "So, you and Spike… you don't mind that Harmony…?"
She shook her head. "He didn't owe me his loyalty," she murmured. "He didn't owe me anything." She looked up, her eyes suddenly very bright. "He…I think he made his peace with me, that last day. He told me he loved me, he had faith in me…but he didn't want to be a burden again." She laughed. "A burden. I mean, yeah, it hadn't been easy when he first got his soul, but how could he ever think that I wouldn't want to see him over that?" Her voice lowered, and Gunn was glad that he'd healed enough to lean over to hear her. "He makes me so angry sometimes."
She stared sightlessly at her palms, turning them over in her lap. "I'm trying to make my peace with him, too," she muttered. "It's not working as well as his did." She forced a smile. "But I'd never hold his sex life against him, you know?"
"That's probably a good thing," Gunn said, smirking. "Because I'm pretty much positive that he and Angel were getting it on by the end there."
He hadn't meant it as a joke, but Buffy let out a startled giggle and he decided not to mention that, not when her eyes were shining with laughter and the sadness had faded away. "Oh, Gunn," she murmured, and pressed a kiss to his cheek that was so clearly instinctive that he didn't allow himself to read any more into it. "I'm going to miss you when I go back."
"I've got to head back to the Council tomorrow," she admitted. "Hopefully, it'll be a short mission and I'll be back in LA in a week or two." She squeezed his hand. "I'll see you then?"
Gunn nodded, frowning at her comment. Why was she coming back? What was holding her there?
But she offered no explanations, and he didn't dare ask, not if it would remind her that there was no reason to return.
It was more like a month, one in which Illyria returned with a shaman of some sort who healed Gunn in a matter of days. He didn't know why Illyria had taken an interest in him now that she'd left behind their "insignificant mortal existence." Maybe it was memories of Fred, and that fact that once she'd once loved him. Maybe it was nostalgia for that last great battle. He didn't ask her, and she didn't offer him any explanations.
Buffy arrived one night when he was fending off two Tarkil demons behind the Hyperion. "What the hell are you doing?" she demanded, shoving him to the side and rushing the closest demon. "You're in no shape to go slaying!"
"Baby, I've been slaying demons since before you were born," he informed her, swinging his axe into the next Tarkil. "I'm not going to let some battle scars stop me."
"What is it with normal people trying to do a slayer's job?" Buffy growled, yanking his demon by the scruff of its neck and shoving her sword into its gut. It let out a pained roar and started spewing black blood at them, and Gunn yanked Buffy out of the way and dropped, rolling Buffy under him on the ground and only catching a tiny spray of it on the way.
"It's acidic," he explained. She stared up at him, uncomprehending, and he couldn't help but notice how big her eyes got when she was confused. Or uncomfortable. Or maybe a little of both. "Tarkil blood?" he clarified.
"Right," she said, a little breathlessly, and then her tiny palms were pressed against his chest, moving him off of her like he weighed nothing. "Are you okay?"
He rubbed the back of his head, feeling the stinging sensation of the acid on his skull. "It mostly missed me," he reassured her, pulling himself up and giving her a hand.
She scowled at him. "Idiot. I would've healed in a day or two. You're going to have at least a week."
"You're welcome," he said flippantly, heading back toward the hotel.
She jogged after him. "Thanks," she muttered grudgingly as soon as she caught up. "But really, you can leave the slaying to me."
He didn't. Gunn wasn't quite as adept as a slayer, but he could hold his own, and after a few more days spent grumbling, Buffy gave up and let him go patrolling with her. He hadn't had quite so much fun slaying demons in years, not since he and Wesley had been a team and Cordy shouted threats at them from the background from getting demon goo on her newest purse. It felt strange…wrong, even, to be enjoying himself in their city with someone else, but he knew that they'd never begrudge him this.
And besides, who else was going to look after Buffy? Buffy, who remained in Los Angeles for no apparent reason and seemed to spend all her time with him, anyway. She'd moved into the Hyperion after her first week back, deciding that it was a waste of time and money to stay holed up in an actual hotel, and she wasn't a bad roommate at all, even if she had yet to produce anything close to edible in the kitchen. She inspected his closet and teased him about his suits (and now he could hardly believe himself that he'd worn them for a year), and on the days when he'd find her curled up on Angel's bed with anguished tears running down her face, they'd go out into the sunlight and forget, for just a few hours, that they were really only visitors to the daytime.
It took time, since Gunn really wasn't the sharing kind, but Buffy gently prodded until he stopped telling her stories about Spike and Angel and started whispering secrets about how he'd loved Fred and still blamed himself, how he sometimes thought that it would have been worth it to give her up to regain Wesley, how he hated the way Cordy's death was glossed over for the sake of the mission. How he kind of hated Angel, because everything Angel touched fell apart, didn't it?
And Buffy listened. Neither one of them was a good talker, but both of them were good listeners and good fighters, and that was enough to keep them happy and safe. Gunn knew that eventually, he'd have to stop siphoning off Angel's assets and take control of his life again, but the real world seemed like a blur now, an endless stream of fighting and friendship with a hot little slayer by his side.
He liked to watch her fight sometimes, to see the way she threw aside vampire after vampire with little more than a snarky comment and a winning smile. He was attracted to her, had been from the start, but never had she piqued his full-blown interest until he'd seen her insult the body odor of a Param-lev demon three times her size and manage to toss Gunn a smirk at the same time. And later that same night, as they ate a pizza and poked fun at a terribly choreographed action movie, he thought he understood how she'd so easily captured the hearts of two demons.
The Param-lev had a family, three brothers who didn't take kindly to its death, and the next night was all business, Buffy and Gunn moving in synchrony against enemies who didn't have a chance. They struck the last one down and sank to the ground together, laughing with exhilaration at the victory.
It seemed almost natural then to bend toward Buffy, to let his lips lightly brush hers and his hands slide over her bare arms. And she must have thought so, too, because she deepened the kiss, edging closer to him until she was nearly on his lap.
But she was also the first to pull away, her eyes dark with regret. "It wasn't supposed to go like this," she whispered, backing away.
"So you had this planned?" Gunn asked jokingly, something inside of him twisting at the look on her face. "Seduce your fabulously gorgeous partner while beating on demons?"
She looked away. "I wanted you to work for us," she murmured. "To fight for the Council. We could use someone familiar with the inner workings of Wolfram and Hart, someone who understands street-fighting with demons to teach the girls."
"So this was all a recruiting gig for you?" Gunn asked cautiously.
She glared at him. "No! God, Gunn, you love the fight! And I know there's a part of you that wants to go don the Armani again and work as a respectable teacher for young, impressionable slayers. You can't tell me it would have been much trouble to get you to come back with me."
Gunn was silent, because she was right, of course. The Watchers Council was the ideal now that he had nowhere else to go. And Buffy would be there, and he was beginning to find it more and more difficult to picture life without her.
Buffy sighed. "It's my fault. I was... I was just supposed to come back here and get you when you got better. But I, uh..." She looked down. "It was nice."
He nodded. "Yeah."
"And I didn't want to go, so I didn't say anything, and now it's too late."
Gunn frowned. "Why? Because we kissed?"
"You kissed me," she corrected him archly.
"Like hell. You kissed me back." He moved to remind her exactly how the kissing went, but she laid a hand on his thigh warningly.
"Every guy I've dated in the past eight years has joined my side because of me," she said quietly. "And when we ended things, they always left. Some took longer than others, but they couldn't stand to be around me anymore. I can't do that again. Not with you."
He stared at her, dumbfounded. "You're kidding, right?"
Her nose wrinkled in confusion. "Huh?"
"Are you really that self-centered?" Gunn wondered, mentally brushing aside the thoughts of fighting with Buffy he'd entertained just moments before. At her irritable glare, he amended, "Buffy, I've been fighting demons my whole life. I'm not going to change that just because you get sick of me."
"I stayed with Angel after Fred- after things ended. I'm not fighting for a girl, I'm fighting for a cause." He stood up abruptly. "And I'm going to your Council to keep that up, and if you don't want to date me, well... then I'll just keep chasing tail there until you get jealous enough to make a move!" he finished triumphantly.
He knew before he turned around that Buffy would be smiling. "Who says I want to date you?" she teased, moving to walk beside him.
Gunn ran a hand down his torso, waggling his eyebrows suggestively. "All the girls want to date this."
Buffy nodded sagely. "So I just want you for your body."
"And you're not going to the Council for me."
He tossed her a wary glance. "There's absolutely no right way to answer that question, is there?"
She laughed lightly. "Xander's going to be so glad to see another guy around. The lack of testosterone's been making him tetchy."
"Oh, really." He hefted his axe, grinning when Buffy snatched it from him and started toward the Hyperion. "Anyone else'll be happy I'm there?"
"Well, I think Giles-" She stopped at the look on his face, sighing dramatically. "Okay, there might be one other person," she acknowledged with exaggerated reluctance.
Gunn grinned. "And if- hypothetically, of course- I made a move on her, think she'd admit that she kissed me back this time?"
She considered, then turned on her heel and headed home, tossing a flirty look over her shoulder that made him gape at her with surprise. "I don't think Willow swings that way," she smirked, and he chased her down the dark city street until he'd caught her against a wall and he'd done again what he'd wanted to do the moment he'd first seen her.
His hallucinations had nothing on Buffy.