When All This Is Over
written by Athenae

Rating: FRT
Spoilers: Everything up to "Once More, With Feeling," with particular references to "Helpless".
Summary: Giles, Xander and Buffy on the beginning of Season Six.
Author's Notes: Additional Disclaimer: The lyrics are from "Take this Waltz," by Leonard Cohen.
Feedback Author: Athenae
Author's LJ: To All The Ports Of Call

Oh I want you, I want you, I want you
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lily
In some hallway where love's never been

When all this is over, Giles thinks, he will find a small apartment, on a quiet city side street, and he will live there with his books and never speak of what he's seen.

Of all the things he expected of a Watcher's life, he never expected peace. It caught him unawares. It found him in late-night conversations with teen-age girls and boys who were so much surer of everything than he. He was overwhelmed, comfortable in their company, expanding in a way he hadn't in years, amongst people he believed to love him.

Amongst people with whom he felt paradoxically, absurdly safe.

It found him in the lightning quickness of her smile, in her bravado, in her gangling schoolgirl grace and artless affection and boundless loyalty.

Nothing in his training prepared him for the blissful relief of moments when, at the end of the day, he and Buffy simply sat side by side at the library table and rested, two weary comrades in dubious battle, cataloguing each other's bruises and swapping stories, easy with one another as he had never been with anyone in his life.

At moments like that, he looked at her implacable face and her dark eyes like tapering flames, and thought, how can she look like porphyry, when we've just watched the world crumble and burn?

Yet there she was, drowsing beside him, and there he was closing his eyes, and both of them ignoring, for a little while, all that was out there trying to swallow them.

He wakes in the morning filled with the dread of losing her. To another apocalypse, to his own stupidity, to the fear that walks one step ahead of her all the time.

Once already, she hasn't come back.

And that night, after he drove Anya and Xander to the hospital and made sure Spike got safely back into the hovel he called home and settled Dawn in her house with Willow and Tara, that night, he stayed with Buffy in the cold hard steel-wrapped morgue, holding her hand as it grew stiff and white, unyielding as porcelain in his grasp.

He ran from them all after that, ran for England thinking that once he crossed an ocean, he would stop imagining her footsteps on his stairs.

When Willow called to tell him she had brought Buffy back, he didn't dissolve. When he stumbled into the Magic Box sick with jet lag, he didn't fall at her feet. He didn't tell her what he had felt since the moment when, as a child of sixteen, she'd thrown a book at his head and demanded her fortune. Demanded he read her the signs.

He drank until he was numb that night, numb to the shattering pain joy rage fear need love shame relief crashing over him, surf upon sand. It was Xander who found him, sitting still against the wall in the training room, scotch on his breath and the bottle beside him, glad beyond words that he was too drunk to feel anything anymore.

Xander cleaned up the glass that he shattered and bandaged his cuts, gripped his shoulders tightly and murmured useless words of comfort in his roaring ears. "You poor British stiff-upper-lipped bastard," the younger man said softly. "Don't worry. She doesn't know."

It was Xander who got him home that night, and who has never talked about it, ever. And when all this is over, Giles will find a way to thank him for that.

There are moments now, when Buffy gives up her grip on her terror and rage and sits beside him, when the others are there, when they laugh. When Anya launches into some ridiculous anecdote involving a demon she knew and a pair of rubber hoses, when Willow forgets where she is and starts stroking the back of Tara's hand, when Dawn can't believe he doesn't know who the Backstreet Boys are.

When the nightmares darkness loss courage effort hell heaven addictions cravings drowning fear that it will never never never be over, when all that fades for a little while, and seems a bearable burden, distributed over six strong pairs of shoulders.

And she looks at him without hatred, without history, and her voice doesn't sting him like a razor, all quick slice and slow bleed.

When all this is over, he will have lost her, and sometimes at night he begs for it, because she gathers herself from these brief respites and widens the distance between them, and he knows nothing he can say will tear off her iron plating and salve her raw soul.

He wishes he didn't know what her blood tasted like. He wishes he couldn't count her scars. He wishes he could still picture her old.

When all this is over, he will leave her grip on his hand and her voice in his ear and he will find a small apartment on a quiet city side street.

He'll have a cat there, and a couch, and a bed he's never shared with anyone who's dead now. He'll read newspapers and not circle every missing person report.

And if people ask him what he does for a living, he won't answer.

There's a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There's a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They've been sentenced to death by the blues.

When all this is over, Xander thinks, he will marry the funny, strange girl sitting beside him at this table, and they'll have Thanksgiving and Christmas together.

They'll have dinner and he'll kiss her before he goes to work and they'll worry about how they're going to buy furniture, not about how two of their best friends are tearing each other to pieces because one of them used to be dead.

Sometimes Giles and Buffy go a whole day before Xander notices neither of them has said a word to anyone. They even train in silence, the only sounds coming from that room the blunted thuds of her fists and boots hitting his pads.

Buffy used to bubble, he remembers. She used to chatter. Giles used to be coaxed into infrequent smiles by her mock insults. Their bond was the nucleus of this strange little family and now Xander feels like his parents are getting divorced all over again.

Ever since she's been back, Giles has treated her like she has the flu, and the effort of their estrangement has begun to wear on them all. He snaps at Anya when she forgets to properly file receipts, though the store has been hers for six weeks now. Once, in the middle of one of Willow's stories about something the kitten did, Giles was laughing, and Buffy just got up and walked out on her.

When all this is over, maybe he'll break one of his few sincere promises and tell Little Miss Leave Me Alone about the night after the day Captain Rational came back from England.

Xander had come back to the store to pick up some "supplies" Willow suddenly, mysteriously needed, and heard the clinking of glass on glass from the training room. The room was velvet black and he almost didn't see Giles sitting beneath the wall of weapons, bottle beside him, glass in his hand.

The older man was slumped over, elbows on knees, and from the smell of alcohol in the air the amber liquid in his glass wasn't his first drink. Xander would have backed out of the room, leaving Giles to his cold comfort, had Giles not spoken first.

"I'm sorry."

His threadbare whisper echoed in the room, a repeating chorus of regret.

"I've held her in my arms. I've held her in my arms and I've chosen her casket, and I cannot for the life of me tell which felt more real to me " Pleading.

Xander walked towards his half-wrecked mentor and friend and laid a hand on his shoulder. The glass broke in Giles fingers. His hand was bleeding.

"Don't move, dammit." He can bandage Giles' hand. He can fix this. Couldn't bring Buffy back to life, couldn't keep her from dying in the first place, but he can patch up the self-inflicted wounds of the only man he knows who loves her more than he does. "Keep your hand up. You'll get your gore all over the mats."

As Xander wrapped Giles' fingers in gauze he thought, not for the first time, that needing to keep bandages, splints and plaster in every room is not normal for most people.

Giles slumped against the wall, submitting in silence to Xander's inept ministrations. His eyes two empty holes in his gaunt, wet face. He'd lost weight in England.

"I should have been here when you when Willow "

"G-man, seriously, shut up." Xander hated himself for snapping. "When Willow puts her incredible witchy powers to something, you know, she's an unstoppable force, and you're no immovable object."

Giles hung his head, looking every single one of his years for a moment. Have pity, Xander thought, and put his hands on the older man's shoulders, trying to stop him from shaking so hard. Understanding more than he should about this man's loss, about love and consequences.

As he pulled Giles from his car and half-carried him up the stairs to his old house, Xander heard him whisper, "Thank you."

How long had he been holding that in? Xander wonders now. When Buffy died ... Anya was a mess. Willow was a mess. Hell, he'd been a mess. Giles had been a rock.

And when all this is over, if Giles hasn't told Buffy how much she means to him, Xander will. They can't go on like this. They will cut each other into tiny pieces and pretend to relish every wound, and Xander would do anything for them, anything except watch that.

Pride goeth something, Xander thinks, and looks across the table at Anya. Who is afraid of rabbits, and whispers as she moves above him, and loves him, simple and uncomplicated as an ex-demon can.

When all this is over he'll marry her, and they'll have the happily ever after he mocked for so long. They'll have a house with a garage, and a nice used car, and sometimes they'll be too busy to cook so they'll order Chinese food and watch television.

When all this is over, he'll take her to his high school reunion, and they'll show people pictures of their house and their children.

And if somebody asks him what happened to his other friends, he won't answer.

And I'll bury my soul in a scrapbook,
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I'll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross

When all this is over, Buffy thinks, she will sleep for about a hundred years.

She can't remember the last time she didn't begin each morning by throwing up. By gulping down coffee, and crunching on aspirin, and feeling her joints protest like a little old woman's when she gets out of bed. She can't remember the last time she felt whole.

When all this is over she will find a house on land far from anywhere, and she will live out the rest of her life in peace.

And if he comes with her, he comes with her, and if he doesn't, he doesn't, and she won't care which it is. Because when all this is over, she never wants to need anyone the way she needs him.

She can't remember the last time he looked at her without an apology in his eyes.

Seven years of friendship ought to allow one person the luxury of telling the other to go the hell away. She feels assaulted by him, by everyone, by their needs and their love for her.

Every time she frowns, Xander pulls a hamstring running over to see what's wrong. More than once she's caught Dawn lurking at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night as she tries to cure insomnia with MTV. Anya keeps trying to give her tasks at the store despite the fact that she'll start something as simple as dusting, and lose ten minutes staring at the books he ordered and made her alphabetize, categorize and number.

"To improve your shoddy concentration," he'd said, and she'd teased him about sounding extra-specially snooty, and he'd laughed.

She wishes the sound of her voice didn't make him flinch. She wishes she hadn't called him old all those years ago. She wishes she hadn't killed so many of her friends.

It started that afternoon in the library, after Travers leveled what was left of his pride. She submitted to his cleaning and bandaging but when she reached up and circled his wrist with her fingers he wrenched away from her, turning, his glasses clutched in the hand that wasn't pressed to his forehead.

"Giles, I'm sorry, I only meant " She was frightened, had intended to comfort him. She understood so much less then. She didn't see how her touch burned people.

"It's all right." His low, hoarse voice. His footsteps on the linoleum, the swinging of the door. The week before he could look at her again.

The way he can't look at her now.

Before, years before, during their time in the library, she would have felt no qualms about burdening him with all of it, all the horrors in her head. But to start talking now would open up something neither of them has time for. Something neither of them is good at.

Honesty is the eighth deadly sin.

He came back from England when he heard she was alive and crashed through the Magic Box door, wired up and too loud, nearly crushing her in a hug that had nothing of him in it. She felt his rib cage, shoulder blades sharp beneath her fingers but when she pulled back and met his eyes, for one instant all she could see was him drowning.

He hasn't really talked to her since. And their only physical contact comes during training, when she tries too hard to beat him senseless and he doesn't try hard enough to resist. He came to work the first morning with his hand wrapped in bandages, and when she apologzed for hurting him, he shrugged. That day Xander didn't speak to her, and busied himself cleaning up the training room, which smelled like antiseptic.

She hates herself for feeling responsible for Giles. She hates herself for wanting him close.

When all this is over, perhaps she'll find a way to go back to the beginning. To guard all of them better, but especially to guard herself, against loving the people around her this much, against letting someone see every cubic inch of her soul. Because they're so close now that she's positively raw to him, and his breath can make her bleed.

She's so tired of parsing out where the pain begins and the happiness ends, when it's okay to laugh and how to cry, the fact that she has to get out of bed every day and make a peanut butter sandwich for Dawn. She's tired of him moving in tandem with her, blocking her blows, always so sorry for the things he can't give her.

When all this is over, she'll buy a house with fields of green and gold as far as she can see. And maybe he'll sit on her porch, and they'll talk then, about what their lives stole from them.

And if he asks her what heaven was like, she won't answer.

And you'll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, Oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It's yours now. It's all that there is.