Timeline: Summer, 2001
Another year out of the way. Buffy sighed as she considered how she felt about that. It was conflicted, like so much else in her life. Some days, when things were as normal as they ever got on the Hellmouth, she could almost pretend she had a normal life. Sure, it wasn't always a great life, but nobody ever said that things would be perfect. She had learned to accept that. Everyone had problems, and, while hers were probably more life threatening than most people had to deal with on a daily basis, she had plenty of good things to balance out her bad times. She had a great mother, whom she loved, and friends that she treasured. She had learned how to live, and enjoy what she had, from them.
In high school, with the typical shortsightedness of a teenager, all she had been able to see was the injustice. She had not chosen to be the Slayer. All she had wanted was a normal life. But what was normal? Xander was normal, or at least as normal as anyone in Sunnydale, but he had chosen to fight the forces of darkness. She had not had that choice, and for years, that had been all she could see. She fought, and she killed, and she saved her friends, and the world. But all she had seen was what had been taken from her.
It was her friends who had made her realize what she had. Xander, Willow, Giles, even Cordelia. With their help, she had come to accept what was. She hadn't always liked it, but she had done her duty. Most of the time. It was Xander, of course, who had put it into perspective for her.
"How can you do it?" she'd lashed out at him, one of those times when her life was falling apart, and it looked like she might not survive the week. "How can you stay here, with me, knowing that I could make a mistake and you could die tonight? What if we go on patrol tonight and I get distracted, or worse? How can you hang around me, knowing that just being with me puts you, and everyone you know, in danger?"
He'd just looked at her with a curiously understanding look in those liquid brown eyes, and said, "How can I not? How could I go through life, knowing what I know, having seen what we've seen, and not fight? If not me, then who? What kind of person would I be then? Would you want to know me? I wouldn't." He'd sighed, and run his fingers through his unruly brown hair.
"Look, Buffy. I know how hard things have been. I was there, remember? And I know that you and I have had our rough times. But think about this. You say that you didn't have a choice, but you do. Think about it. OK, you're the chosen one. The one girl in all the world, yadda, yadda, yadda. But you didn't have to do it. Just because Giles and the council told you it was your duty, didn't mean you had to accept it. You could have run, like Faith. You could have pretended that you had never heard of Slaying, vampires, the whole lot. Yeah, yeah, destiny and all that crap. But you, and I, chose to meet that fate. We could have dodged it, evaded the responsibility, if we had really wanted to."
"No buts. Remember the Master? You almost quit. You knew that you would die, and you went anyway. That was your choice. Giles didn't make you do it, the council didn't make you do it, hell, even the Powers that Be couldn't have made you do it. You chose."
She'd stopped, surprised at his calm logic. That was when she had begun to accept, to see beyond what she thought she had been denied. Yeah, OK, she didn't have quite the same kind of memories of high school that most students had, but then, she doubted many people, anywhere, had ever had friendships like she had. Willow, Xander, and Giles had literally faced death at her side. And they didn't have any sacred duty. They had done it for her, and themselves, and the world. It was their choice.
Things had gotten better, but she had still dragged the expectation of immanent death around for a few years. But it had never come. Not that there hadn't been plenty of close calls, but her friends had pulled her through. She had a support system like no other Slayer in history, and it was them who had saved her life, time and again.
She didn't know if she would ever be able to thank them for that.
But, nonetheless, she had never really planned on a future. She had been afraid, afraid to dream, to hope, when everything she had ever heard told her she would be dead before she was 25. It had seemed futile.
And yet, here she was, finishing her second year of college, and about to begin her third. How many Slayers had done that? How many Slayers had even gone to college?
How many Slayers had to choose a major?
Buffy sighed as her wandering thoughts brought her back to the impetus behind this depressing mental dialogue she was having, and she knew she needed to talk to someone. Sitting her alone in her old room at Mom's was not helping her get anywhere. She needed a plan.
Well, she thought with an inner grin, I know people who are good at plans, don't I?
* * * * * * * * *
Xander smiled as he pulled up in front of The Magic Box. Giles' choice of names might have been a little unoriginal, but he knew how to service his customers. His little "magic store" had quickly become the major one-stop-shopping spot for most of Southern California's "enlightened" practitioners of magic. And Giles said that he had made some incredibly useful contacts. But he insisted that candles, incense, and blacklight posters were what paid the bills.
He carefully scanned the street in the fading twilight before unlocking and stepping out of the car. Things had been quiet lately, but this was Sunnydale. You could never get complacent in Sunnydale, because right about the time you did, things would-
"AAAUUGH!!!" he cried, falling back into the front seat of his car as he spun around, hands raised in an attempt to ward off whatever had popped out of nowhere to attack him this time. He wound up laying flat on his back on his front seat, with his legs sticking out into the street and his arms up in the air, looking up at Willow with a sheepish expression on his face. She couldn't help it, she burst out giggling as she took one of his hands and helped him to his feet.
"Sorry," she said once he was upright again and she had her laughter under control.
He shot her a mock glare as he straightened out his clothes, then grinned at her and said, "It's OK, but man have your stealth skills improved." He stopped when he noticed her furious blush. "What did I say?"
"Oh, Goddess, Xander, I'm sorry. I completely forgot, which is incredibly careless of me. I was practicing a cantrip from one of Giles' new acquisitions, and I forgot when I saw you that you couldn't see me."
"What? You were invisible?"
"Well, not quite invisible, more like, easily overlooked." She shrugged apologetically. "I didn't mean to scare you."
"Ahhh," Xander paused while he considered the response that would have the least negative impact on his manly image, and looked at his oldest, bestest bud. Three years of slaying her way through high school, and then two years of college, had pulled Willow out of the shell she had lived in for so long. While she wasn't exactly extroverted, she had gained a quiet assurance in herself that Xander found himself occasionally envying. Not that he would admit it, even to her. Well, unless she needed to hear it. "I wasn't scared, just startled. I want that to be perfectly clear." He gave her another mock glare, and she adopted a mock look of serious contrition.
"Of course, how careless of me to state that so unclearly," she said, grinning and arching an eyebrow at him.
"Good," he replied with an answering grin. "Now that we have that settled, shall we go in an find out what new catastrophe, and take note of my use of the big word, that Giles has in store for us?"
* * * * * * * * *
Giles looked up when he heard the door chime, and he smiled as he saw who had walked in. "Xander, would you be so kind as to lock the door behind you, and turn around the sign?" he called.
Xander paused at the door long enough to lock it and turn around the 'Open' sign so that it said 'Sorry, we're closed.' Willow continued up to the counter and gave Giles a bright smile.
"So, what's on the agenda for today?" she asked, with her usual sparkle in her eye.
"I don't know, honestly, this is Buffy's meeting. I rather expected her to be here by now…"
"She is." Buffy said quietly from the doorway to the storeroom. She had come in the back door quietly, and waited for her friends to arrive before making her presence known.
Xander's eyes lit up and his mouth broke out with his trademark sardonic grin as he greeted her. "So, Buffster, what's the what? Big evil brewing? Must be bad to make you so quiet. You can stop me any time here, OK? Please tell me I'm wrong and not incredibly perceptive…"
"Xander, hush." Willow said quietly, putting her hand on his arm to still him. "Buffy, are you OK?" Willow was concerned by the serious look Buffy was giving, her, giving all of them. She was looking at them calmly, with a quiet absorption, like she was trying to memorize their faces. Willow had seen that look before, usually right before Buffy went to face certain death, and she was rapidly beginning to fear that something monstrous had happened when they weren't looking.
Buffy knew she had to speak, before she scared them all to death. She was having a surprisingly hard time figuring out how to start this conversation, however, so she figured she had better reassure them before she got to the heart of the matter. "No, no big evil. Everyone relax, I just need to talk with you guys. ALL of you," she emphasized, looking at Giles.
"Yes, well, perhaps we should have a seat?" he replied, gesturing to the table in the middle of the shop that had slowly become their headquarters for Slaying over the last year. "Would anyone like tea, or anything else? The service man finally fixed that dratted Pepsi machine in the back, so you can have soda if you like…"
The others all declined as the moved to the table. Willow sat with her usual quiet grace, tucking one small foot under her other knee, propping her hand on her chin and turning an expectant gaze towards Buffy. Xander sprawled out with his own unique elegance, that still reminded her of Faith, after all this time. She had that same way of throwing herself into chairs. Or beds, or anything else, for that matter. Buffy turned her thoughts away from that path, now was definitely not the time. Giles pulled out another chair and sat down precisely like Giles should, economical and precise. Buffy sighed as she began to pace back and forth, realizing that she couldn't put this off any more, and she still didn't know what to say.
"Umm, okay, I don't really know how to begin, so this is probably going to be a little strange. So bear with me, Okay?" She waited expectantly while the others nodded. "So, I was going over my enrollment stuff, and I realized that I have to declare a major. And I need your help." She paused at the mass outrush of sighs from her three best friends. They really had been nervous. "But, there's more. See, for a long time I hated the fact that I was the Slayer. All I could see was what had been taken from me, and what I had to give up. It took me a long time to realize what I had been given, and I owe that to all of you. I owe my life to you guys, and before I go any further, I wanted to say thanks. I know I have said it before, but I don't know if I can say it enough. I can't even guess how many times I would have failed, and died, without you."
Buffy paused to look at their faces, and see how they were taking this. Willow was gazing at her with a gentle half smile, and had unshed tears glistening in her eyes. Xander had his sheepish 'Awe, shucks, it ain't nothing' expression on, and was trying to pretend his own eyes weren't watering. Giles was blinking and polishing his glasses like they had just been dipped in tar. Buffy didn't even try to hide the single tear that had escaped her own eye and was now leaving a wet trail down her left cheek.
"I've never really planned for a future," she continued, "because it seemed like every time I turned around, I was reminded of the fact that I would probably be dead by the time I was 25." Giles had an extremely apologetic look on his face, and she hurried to reassure him. "It wasn't your fault, Giles, you always tried to protect me from thinking like that. But just knowing some of the histories that we read while researching other things made that fact pretty clear. And since I was pretty non-plussed about the whole 'being-a-slayer' thing anyway, I figured it would be a waste of my time getting my hopes up.
But that was high school. I've changed a lot since then, and we have all been through a lot. I owe so much to you, which is why getting to the point of this conversation is so hard for me." She paused for a moment, and sighed, then sat down at the end of the table and looked back up at them. "I want to start planning, now. I have to choose a major, and thinking about that made me realize that just because I might die tomorrow is no reason not to plan for next week. Or next month, or next year. I want to make a difference, and I want to have a plan, so that if I do live through college, I can find some kind of life, and career, that will be complementary, or at least as much so as possible."
She saw that they were still with her, and went on to what was, for her, the hardest part of this speech. "And I need to know- I need to know what you guys want to do. After this. I don't want you guys to give up your lives, but I need to know what you want to do, because some of my ideas are based on certain things, and you guys are those things. If you plan on moving off and finding a real, non-Hellmouth life, I need to know. I have never asked you before, because I was afraid of the answer. I don't know what I would do without you guys, but I can't do this with expectations and hope, not anymore. I need to know what your dreams are."
She stopped and looked up at the others, almost shyly. Willow had managed to keep the tears in her eyes from rolling down her cheeks during that speech, but now the dam burst, and the heartbreaking fear she could see deep in her best friend's eyes, the fear that those she needed would abandon her, touched her in a place that she wished her other family, her 'real' family would have filled like they were supposed to. "Buffy," she said as she reached out to clasp the Slayer's hand, "I told you, once, that I had decided what I wanted to do. Do you remember?"
Buffy nodded twice, the tears still quietly rolling down her face, as Willow, still clasping her hand, looked at the others and continued, "Right before we graduated, when I picked UC Sunnydale, I decided that this was it. This was what I wanted to do. Fight evil, help my friends. Not necessarily in that order, either. I don't see how someone could give this up, once they start. Heck, even Cordelia couldn't give up the good fight, right? And you think I'm gonna run out? I'm in for the long haul, girl, so don't even TRY to make plans without me!" she finished, giving Buffy a good dose of her resolve face. The she turned her gaze to Xander expectantly.
"What? You think I have something better to do? To be honest, I'm a little hurt that you asked. If I hadn't met you, and assuming I had by some miracle survived high school without having met you, I would probably be working some dead end job, just like the rest of my family, and on my way to being a world class alcoholic, just like the rest of my family. You guys give my life meaning. Even on those occasions where all I contribute is snack food, I'm doing something more important than I ever would have believed possible. How could I give this up? I mean, your first year in college I had some serious abandonment issues with you guys, and I thought I was going to die. You think I would ever voluntarily go through that again? You're going to have to kill me, sister, to get me to stay away." Xander finished his speech with his own version of the 'resolve face,' which involved a quirked eyebrow, looking at you through his eyebrows, and a half smile, like even he couldn't believe he was being assertive.
Even after all this time, Willow's heart still melted when she saw that smile.
All eyes turned to Giles, and he stopped wiping his glasses, put them back on, and looked at them all with faint surprise. "What do expect me to say? I am your Watcher, Buffy, and more than that, I love you like you were my own daughter. You will NEVER get rid of me, unless you tell me to leave. Probably not even then." He said with a quiet dignity, not even looking embarrassed when he said he loved her.
Fresh tears were rolling down Buffy's cheeks after that, and Willow felt her own eyes leaking around the edges, and then everyone gave one of those tension-breaking, semi-embarrassed laughs, everyone wiped their eyes, and they got down to business.
"Okay," began Buffy, "the way I see it, we need to find a way to make slaying pay. And I don't mean just Buffy P.I., either. That gig is working okay for Angel, but we have way more talent at our disposal and I think we can come up with something better…"
*** The End of The Beginning…***
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