by Nicole Clevenger

It's the forever part that gets him.

A month later, and she's still dead. Things have begun to calm down, as they always seem to do after a narrowly averted apocalypse, and life around him goes on. Every life, that is, except for hers. He keeps expecting to turn and see her, keeps catching the sound of her voice or the scent of her shampoo. But she's not there. And he's only just now beginning to realize that she's not ever going to be.

Most days he's still pretty much numb - about her, about his eye, about the destruction of everything he's known so far. Well, almost everything, because he's still got his friends. And that counts for a lot, understand. But then he'll be sitting there in the lobby of that old hotel, listening to them plan where to go from here, and he'll look around at all of them only to realize that he's looking for one in particular. The one that's not there.

And it's like this hole opens up, this big sucking hole inside his chest. The numb is ripped away like a layer of protective skin and all he can feel is this hole. A stabbing, panicky kind of pain, the kind that steals his breath and tunnels his vision and makes him want to curl in on himself and never move again. It's the sudden and inexorable knowledge that she really is gone. Gone and not coming back.

All in all, he'd much rather suffer with the numb.

The rest of them, they do what they can to distract him, comfort him. But they've all lost things, even if they did win the Big War. And they're not going to be together for much longer. Even though most of them decided to head to L.A. together to rest and regroup, they all knew it was only temporary. Knew that their destinies didn't necessarily match anymore. They all have their own paths to walk now - they don't all know what those paths are as of yet, but it was obvious even as they stood at the lip of the crater that used to be their home that this was the end of an era.

Even the guy with only one eye could see that.

There have been countless moments over the last few weeks where he's tried to force himself to focus. To make at least a few decisions. One decision. Two. But there's just so much to decide, to focus on. And every time he ends up overwhelmed and retreating back into the numbness. Not today. Tomorrow. He'll definitely start making plans tomorrow.

He looks around at the rest of them and sees endless possibilities in their faces. Especially Buffy. Sure she's mourning the loss of Spike - Xander knows she hasn't told them everything that happened in those last moments, and sometimes she gets this look that's so far away he just wants to wrap her in his arms and tell her that he understands. Just hold her tight and whisper I know I know I know into her hair, and maybe if they could share their pain there would somehow be less of it. But he doesn't think it works that way. And he hasn't been able to make himself try yet.

But, yeah, Buffy. When he doesn't see the Lost Look, there's this glowing, growing, potential sort of look that's unlike any Buffy Look he's ever seen before. They all have this sort of open future now, but it shows itself in her more than any of them. She's not The One anymore, not bowed under the huge weight of some solitary fate. The freedom suits her. This new look of lightness and wonder makes her even more beautiful to him than ever before.

Of course, he has to turn his head sometimes to see it now. One hell of a blind spot, you know.

He's happy for her, though. Happy for all of them. And Angel made it clear he could stay in the hotel as long as he wanted. Plenty of space and no one is much using it anyway these days. He isn't quite clear on why that is, but he's not sure if that's because no one's really filled in the details or because he doesn't always pay a lot of attention lately. He gets the vague feeling that there's a lot of things he's missing.

He didn't expect the offer, though - seeing as how he and Angel haven't always been the bestest of friends. But he appreciates it, if for no other reason than it lets him put off any hint of decision- making for that much longer. Half the time it's all he can do to get out of bed anyway.

So he sits and drifts and occasionally musters a smile for company, trying again and again to remind himself that it could've been much worse. He could've lost everything, after all. Been blind instead of cycloptic. Totally friendless. Dead instead of alive. He tries to think about the possibilities, instead of the Yeah Buts. The What Ifs. The Now Whats.

He tries not to think about forever, but forever keeps coming back to throw yet another sucker punch to his gut. The worst shots come at night, nights like this where there are no distractions, no comforts. Nights like this where he lays in a dark room that doesn't belong to him, staring at patterned wallpaper while his thoughts chase each other endlessly around the inside of his head. Nights where he can almost convince himself that she's just about to slip into the bed with him, cold toes brushing his to send icy shocks up his legs right before she steals more than her share of the covers.

And then he'll realize that he's holding his breath, and when he lets out that rush of air the spell snaps and the moment is gone. Never Again takes its spot, and there's been a time or two when he's actually cried out with the speed and force of that replacement. It can't be true, can't be real. How could someone who took up so much life actually be gone forever? It's too easy for him to remember back to a time when he was sure he'd never be apart from her. Sure he'd never want to be. Even after that started to change, when the fear and doubt started to sneak into the mix - when he wasn't really all that certain this thing between them could last - he'd still had that fall back safety of the Option. The soul-deep false knowledge that she'd always be there, if only they decided to get past their problems and make it work.

And when it became glaringly obvious that it wasn't going to work, she was still there. As a friend, a lover, a constant. Funny, you'd think that living so close to total destruction as they always had would make a person hyper-conscious of the fact that nothing is constant. But they'd seen that even death could be overturned - proved it more than once, actually. So maybe it wasn't so hard to see how they bought into the illusion of constancy. Or at least second chances.

But this time there was no second chance. No spell they could whip up to bring her or any of the rest of them back. In those first few days after, he actually proposed it in a drunken haze. Come on, Will, show off that new power and bring her back. Flex those supernatural muscles and let me hear her voice one more time.

The look Willow had given him was filled with sorrow and apology. And - though it was hard to tell with just one very blurry eye - he thought he caught a bit of pity in there too.

He hates that pity look more than anything. Tells himself to get used to it, because chances are he'll be seeing plenty of it in the future. But he doesn't want to have to get used to it, any more than he wants to accept the fact that she's not coming back. Maybe tomorrow he'll work on that one too.

He remembers all the times he cringed when she'd say something inappropriate. Now he'd gladly hold her hand while she discussed oral sex with the Pope, if it meant he could hear that voice again. He'd let her interrupt all his sentences without a word of protest, offer up the last of the hot water or the milk before she had a chance to take it anyway.

She never quite trusted ice cubes, he remembers suddenly. Hated that they took up so much space in an already-cold drink, only to melt and take up even more. If it's already ice cold, she'd say, then why do you need to add ice?

God, he can almost hear her voice.

It's actually the almost that scares him most. He has no idea what he's supposed to do when he really can't hear her anymore. He clings to the fraying shreds of her in his mind, beyond afraid that one of these mornings he'll wake up and won't remember what she sounded like. What she looked like. He doesn't even have mementos to help him keep her. The only place she still exists is inside their memories.

It's not fair. It's not fair and he wants it to be. Wants it to be so badly that he can taste it, bitter and thick in the back of his throat like bile. He doesn't care that he sounds like a child, insisting again and again on something that will never happen. He doesn't care that it's not supposed to be fair. Who the hell made up that rule anyway.

And if this is supposed to be some kind of life experience - one of those things that they claim will make you stronger once you get through it - well, then, he's done it. Had the experience, suffered, grown as a person, bigger faster stronger and all that... So please can't it be over now? Can't he just file the requisite paperwork, get the merit badge or Death ID or whatever, and just have her back? Chalk another up to Things He's Done and go back to the way things were before?


His brain refuses to really wrap around the concept of forever, though - no matter how often that word echoes through it. For every wrenching spasm of heart-crushing agony, he still can't let go of the idea that if he just waits long enough, she'll return to his life. So he holds tightly to the thought that if he can only get through this minute, hour, day, he'll be rewarded. If he only holds on for just a while more, it'll all pay off in the end when she walks through the door.

What's everybody staring at? she'll ask, honestly confused and a little annoyed. Probably to be followed by something like, Xander, tell them to quit it. I'm hungry.

Any day now. Because nothing lasts forever, right?


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