Realization By Pat Kelly



Buffy felt dead inside. Standing in the hospital room where her best friend lay in a coma, she was hollow, numb. She knew she was breathing, but couldn't feel the air circulating in her lungs. She knew her heart was beating, but to her, it was frozen in place.

"The doctor said it was head trauma. She can wake up at any time, but...the longer it lasts, the...less likely it is." Xander said, standing beside her.

She brushed back a few stray hairs that had draped themselves over her friend's closed eyes -- Willow was so pale. Her mouth, usually smiling, showed no signs of doing that anytime soon. Where was the color?

"I never should've let her try to do that curse. Angel must've known." Buffy said, and it was the truth. She should have never let her do it, but Willow would have protested until she gave in, always ready to help her. This time she may have cost herself her life. "Where are her parents?"

"With relatives in Phoenix." He told her, barely able to speak. "I gave them a call. They're...they're getting on a plane back."

Buffy didn't care about Angel, Acathla, the murder charges, any of that -- it just didn't matter. At this moment, all that mattered was Willow. It put everything into perspective. A perspective she was just beginning to grasp. She knew that if she lost Willow, whether she ever got Angel back again or not, she couldn't keep going.

"Does Oz know?" She wondered.

Xander exhaled, feeling like an idiot. "Oh, man...I didn't even think...I'll call him."

Hearing footsteps, they both reluctantly turned away to see who was coming. Cordelia slowly came in, her gaze immediately traveling down to the redhead's still form.

"Hey." He said softly, hugging her.

"Hey." The cheerleader responded, just as softly. "How is she? The doctor told me that..."

"Yeah. We're, uh...still waiting." Her boyfriend answered, and they turned to Buffy, who wasn't paying any attention to their conversation.

Her gaze was settled solely on the face of her injured best friend.

Realizing how quiet she was, the slayer broke away, and looked up at Cordelia. "You okay?" She asked, finally.

"I ran. I think I made it through three counties before I realized nobody was chasing me." The brunette was angry with herself. "Not too brave."

"It was the right thing to do." Buffy assured her.

'If I was as smart as Cordelia, I might've stopped...' She lost the thought, too tired to fight with herself.

She should've known that the whole thing was a set up from the get go. It wasn't like Angel to challenge her out in the open. He would never request a fight; it lacked style. Her internal alarms never went off, though, and it was such an obvious ruse. What did that say about her ability to do her job? It was a foolish mistake that could result in the loss of two lives instead of just one. Kendra -- she was so focused, so proficient...there must've been a lot.

"Did --?" Xander started to say, as the weary blonde cut him off.

Buffy was beginning to feel suffocated. "Could you guys...give me a few minutes?"

Any objections they had to her request were washed away as soon as they saw her _expression. It was one of pleading need.

"We'll be right outside." Cordelia said, ushering Xander out of the room before he could say anything.

When Buffy heard the door shut, she sat on an empty space of the bed. Sighing out of exhaustion, she allowed herself to shed long-held tears. She laid her on Willow's chest, put her friend's hand in hers, and sobbed. Now that she was alone, so to speak, she thought about the person underneath her. She felt like she was on the verge of...understanding something. Of gaining clarity. Whatever it was, it was something she should've realized a long time ago, but never did.

It may have been an understatement, but Willow was a unique individual. Yes, it most definitely was. She was so brilliant, intelligent, resourceful...which was just scratching the surface. On the outside, she seemed fragile, unsure. But inside, she was confident and incredibly strong-willed. Stronger than the slayer herself in a lot of ways, because despite everything Buffy had put her through, she still managed to cling to that innocence the blonde had lost a long time ago.

But it wasn't an innocence that a child possessed. A child's innocence was one of complete and blissful ignorance, where the events of the world didn't matter, and didn't affect you in any way. There was still that wonder upon seeing new surroundings, and nothing in them could hurt you.

No, that was not Willow's innocence, for she had seen many horrible things, more than anybody should have to see at the age of seventeen. Her innocence, well...Buffy couldn't find a word for it. It had elements of a child's, yet it also had a great deal of maturity. How could you define that? It didn't matter, because the point was, that it enabled Willow to always look for the bright side in life. Buffy wanted that ability -- she craved it.

Innocence or no, it was still beyond her how, after narrowly escaping death, Willow could have a smile on her face the next day. And the smile wasn't put there for anyone's benefit, either. It was a true, honest to goodness, smile. She could never stay mad at anyone, would never intentionally hurt anybody, and was loyal to a fault. There weren't many people in the world like that, and who knows? Maybe she was the only one.

The more Buffy thought about it, the more she understood -- Willow was her innocence. She shared hers with the slayer, filling in that missing piece, and keeping it in place. She was the one who was there for the worn fighter, the one who reminded her what a life was like, and why it was vital to hold onto it. As hard as it was to admit to herself, no one else did that for her. Not Giles, not her mom, and not...Angel. Everyone else tried to protect her, to guide her in what they assumed was the right direction.

Giles still didn't agree with her actions as a slayer. Her mom tried desperately to hide her from the big bad world she couldn't even begin to comprehend. And Angel, as much as he had loved her, attempted to keep her at a distance, thinking she couldn't handle him and his past. Even Xander had his own opinions about the way she did things, trying to force her to do 'the right thing,' as he saw it in his mind. It showed her that they cared, and it meant a lot to her, but they didn't trust her. Not completely, anyway.

Yet it would be hard to argue that they should, considering what she'd done. But Willow had never questioned her, had never judged her, and had never gotten on her case if something went wrong. The redhead was always supportive.

Miss Calendar was a prime example. Ever since her death, Xander had been on a 'Die, Angel, Die' crusade. It seemed to everyone else that he placed all blame strictly on the vampire, but Buffy could see it in his eyes -- he blamed her, too. Giles' eyes told her the same thing. They may not have said it out loud, but she knew. Every time they looked at her, she felt like she was being drilled into. She felt uncomfortable, and sometimes, even hated. To her, the looks were worse than the actual words, and given the fact that she already blamed herself, she couldn't handle any more from them.

Willow hadn't blamed her, though. The hacker's eyes held only a look of sympathy, and a desire to comfort. Buffy felt safe around her. She felt unconditional trust, friendship, and...

'Oh my God...' The clarity hit her -- she got it. Lifting her head off of Willow's chest, she stared down at her face. 'I love Willow...'

That realization soothed as well as scared Buffy. Had she loved her all this time? If she had, that meant the girl's life was risked for nothing. That meant her love for Angel wasn't as strong as she thought it was. If that was true, then what was he? What if Willow didn't? What if...? The more she mulled over her new knowledge, the more confused she became, so she moved herself directly above Willow's lips, and kissed them softly.

She had to say it before she second-guessed herself. Before she questioned her instincts, her feelings. "I love you, Will."

By the door, Cordelia listened quietly, and Xander came over, intending to go into the room. He hadn't seen or heard.

"Don't, Xander." His girlfriend warned.

"Don't? But I --" He started to protest.

"Just don't." She said simply, dragging him back to the chairs.

By the bed, Buffy had drifted off to sleep.

*******************************************************************************************************************************

When she awoke, she wasn't in the hospital anymore. This was Angel's old apartment, and...and she was on his bed. This was where she'd made love for the first time; she thought it was beautiful, and that night, it was. Afterwards, however, she learned that that night started her life, and the lives of those closest to her, on the seemingly never-ending downward spiral they were currently caught up in.

'How did I get here?' She questioned herself, and then it clicked. 'Dream.'

"Is it a good nap," Came an all too familiar voice, "or the kind that's bad?"

Buffy's attention was drawn to the entryway that led into the bedroom, and she watched Willow walk in, bright and sunny. The redhead wasn't wearing a hospital gown; she was wearing a pink sweater with a large yellow daisy on the front, and a light red skirt. Her ability to form words, sentences, and even simple sounds, had vanished at the sight of her friend, so it took her mouth several seconds to begin working properly.

"What qualifies as a bad nap?" The slayer wondered.

"Uh..." Willow looked as though she hadn't been too sure herself, but then she snapped her fingers as she came up with something. Or, attempted to -- they weren't making any noise. "Why can't I ever do that?" She grumbled, and Buffy smiled. "Okay, so, um...bad naps. Well, uh, you-you hafta know what they are...don't you?" Buffy gave her a look that said, 'I do?' "They're when you wanna sleep, but you can't, and it really, *really* gets on your nerves. And then, just when your eyes get all droopy, some big jerk wakes you up."

"Ohhhh, those." The blonde nodded, as it all now made sense. "Yeah, I'm familiar with them. But I don't think this is a normal nap." She suddenly remembered the strangeness of her situation. "Will? Are you here? I mean, really? Cause I'm already losing my mind, and --"

"I kinda don't know." The redhead frowned, interrupting. "I was just...here. One second I was nowhere, then...poof, I asked you about your nap. But how did I know you were napping? And I can't 'poof.'" Her eyebrows furrowed. "At least I don't think I can. Buffy, how did I 'poof?'"

"No idea." The slayer said helplessly, as the perturbed hacker joined her on the bed. "Wait. If you're you..."

Willow looked freaked. "Why wouldn't I be me? I like me."

Buffy placed a calming hand on her friend's shoulder. "I like you, too." Oh, how true that was. "But how can you be in my dream if you're not...?" She went white.

Dead. If she wasn't dead, and visiting her in her dream. Buffy prayed to whatever might have been listening for that not to be true, and so was Willow.

"No, no, no, no. I'm not. I can't be." Willow shook her head vigorously. "Harps! Aren't there supposed to be harps? I don't see any. Nope. No harps." She was working hard to convince herself. "You don't see any either, right?"

The slayer had to agree. "No, definitely no harps." As much as she didn't want it to, doubt still lingered. "But...you're Jewish. Are harps a Jewish thing?"

"I..." The hacker was lost again. "I...they could be?" She offered lamely, and then her features lit up, as she searched again. "Driedels! They're Jewish!"

"And there's none here." Hazel eyes scanned around, too, satisfied. It relieved them both somewhat, though they had no clue why. "We gotta figure this out."

They pondered in silence, and Buffy got rather distracted by Willow chewing on her bottom lip. She chastised herself, and got back to it. Focus -- they had to focus. She felt better just being next to her best friend, and having her talk back. If this was insanity, she welcomed it.

"Maybe..." Willow had an idea, then. "Maybe I'm still in the coma?" Buffy waited for more explanation, clearly perplexed. "And-and this is like, my astral-self...or something. Giles has books on this stuff -- I read a little one time after History." She told the slayer. "But I'm not dead, I'm just out of my body, I think. Ooh! And I guess I wanted to visit you." Her lips upturned broadly. "Cause I can, being body-less and all."

"Well, I appreciate it." Buffy smiled genuinely for a moment, but slowly lost the pleasant feeling she was experiencing. "So...are you gonna make it? Please tell me you are."

Sadness and guilt showed plainly on her face, and Willow would have none of it. She hated when Buffy did this. "Hey, bookcase falling? Not your fault. It was a vampire." She said, forcefully. "Since when are you one of them? You're Buffy. Totally different -- your name has two syllables, and 'vampire' has three. See? Different."

"Yeah, I'm Buffy, all right." The blonde concurred, a sarcastic edge to her voice. "Slayer of *vampires*, remember? I wasn't there to slay."

"We all knew it was risky." The redhead spoke softly. "Especially me, and I was okay with that. We had a plan, and the plan went blooey. That sorta happens sometimes. Nobody blames you, though. Nobody. You didn't force me to do the spell, I wanted to."

"But --" The slayer's head was lowered.

"Plus, I'm pretty sure I'll be awake soon," The hacker added happily, "so don't do anything super crazy, okay?"

Buffy felt some hope rise within her, but couldn't meet her friend's eyes. "I already have...and I'm so confused."

The next thing Willow said was so quiet, the blonde could barely hear her. "You really...love me? Like *love*, love?"

Slayer reflexes allowed Buffy's head to shoot up incredibly fast, without breaking her neck, and her eyes went wide. "You-you heard...?" The girl beside her nodded, and she decided she had to be truthful. Even if it confused her. "Yeah. I do."

"Wow." The redhead uttered in a shocked stupor. "But Angel...?" Buffy shook her head in the negative, and Willow then beamed. "Wow."

"Is that a good 'wow,'" Buffy nervously asked, "or the kind of 'wow' that's bad?" It was remarkably similar to an earlier question.

"Oh, it's the good kind. The very good kind." Willow assured her. "But now I'm confused, too, cause..."

Why was it the good kind? There was Oz; she had Oz.

Buffy gasped. "You mean...?"

"Uh huh -- I mean." She felt like a light bulb instantly turned on, and then she was being hugged firmly. "But, Buffy...how come you're, um...dreaming about Angel's bedroom?"

The slayer pulled away with a cough. "Well...uh, nobody knows how dreams work, you know. They're the most unpredictable things in...ever. Yes, they're the most unpredictable things ever." She didn't notice Willow's smirk. "I bet it's all random; honestly, I believe that. I could've just as easily dreamt about st-standing in line at the bank, or-or...huge stacks of homework that make no sense, which means I can't do any of it, so they're always late, and these gigantic, red F's start mocking me."

Willow pouted, while Buffy tried to catch her breath. "You babble better; you babble better than me."

"Never." Buffy insisted, squeezing her hand.

The redhead let out a sigh, which was followed by a grin. "Your face was all red, and you were so..." She giggled. "You're funny when you're nervous."

"I'm here to amuse." The slayer deadpanned, rolling her eyes. "But at least I'm not dreaming about him, right?" She appeared hopeful.

"Right." Willow echoed in agreement. "Cause then I'd worry." Her _expression turned thoughtful. "You know what I think it is? I think you feel safe here. Even after...everything." She didn't need to elaborate. "And you should have good memories. Angel cared a lot about you."

"But shouldn't I move on?" Buffy asked. "If we're...I need to let go. I don't wanna hurt you. Ever."

The hacker smiled. "It's okay, Buffy. You have 'Angel' memories, and I have 'Oz' ones. That doesn't mean we won't," She blushed, using her next word conspiratorially, as if someone were listening, "*like* each other just as much. I hope." Now she squeezed Buffy's hand. "There's a whole bunch of things to figure out, so as soon as I'm up, and not sleepy, and I get my head un-jumbled, we'll figure till we can't figure no more."

Buffy laughed. "We'll take breaks, won't we? For other...stuff?" They both blushed. "If I figure too much at once, my brain revolts."

"S-sure we will." Willow told her, her voice squeaking. Her voice was calm and steady as she made her next point, though. "But you gotta be around when I wake up. Remember, no craziness."

Did Willow know she had planned to leave after killing Angel?

The slayer swallowed. "No craziness."

She meant it. Then around her, everything started to fade; she was waking up. She couldn't stay in her dream, but she could stay in Sunnydale -- there was reason to.

"Guess you gotta go." Willow remarked sadly.

Before Buffy could say anything, the dream world was gone, and she was staring at Xander.

******************************************************************************************************************************

"How long was I out?" She asked, straightening herself up.

"Five minutes." He informed her, distractedly. Only five minutes?

She saw the worried look in his eyes, and she immediately snapped to full attention. "Xander? What is it?"

"I was talking with Cordy..." He spoke slowly, afraid to say the words aloud. "She said Giles never followed her out. He hasn't been here. We don't --"

With a quick glance to make sure Willow was still in the bed and not going anywhere, Buffy sprang to her feet, and ran out the door.

******************************************************************************************************************************

Well, it was over. She had done her duty. She sent him to Hell to save the world. Now she stood under a tree across the street from the school, watching the gang converse. They were probably talking about where she was, but all she could concentrate on was the fact that Willow was in a wheelchair. That was what made her ashamed to show her face to them again. She had no right. She had no right to ask for their trust and friendship back, and she had no right to be selfish and screw up Willow's life even more.
'She's sitting in that because of me.'

She had wanted to stay. After the dream she had changed her mind, told herself she wasn't going to leave -- but then things got worse. On top of Kendra's death, her being a fugitive, and her friends' injuries, she was also expelled, her mom practically threw her out of the house, Giles had been tortured, and of course, she had sent Angel, soul and all, to Hell. Everything Willow had said to her was comforting at the time, though now...she just didn't know. Could anyone really blame her for leaving?

"Where ya goin'?" A voice asked.

She glanced over to her side, seeing Angel was standing there, a surreal light illuminating his form. She thought it was odd, not only that he was here, but also that she didn't have more of a reaction. Her thoughts were elsewhere, however.

"Away," She finally answered, "where I can't hurt anybody."

"You didn't hurt them." He countered.

"Yeah, I did." She argued, tiredly. "When did I ever do them any good?"

Angel pointed at the group. "They're alive because of you."

"That isn't..." She sighed, realizing she couldn't win going down that road, so she changed gears. "You're not."

"I died a long time ago, Buffy." He spoke softly. "If you're worried about me, don't be." There was quiet for a moment, as he couldn't quite believe it yet. "I'm free."

She turned her head, raising an eyebrow at him. "What're you talking about?"

"They finally let me in." He smiled, looking skyward.

She looked up, too, her face streaked with wetness. "You deserve it."

His next statement brought on her denial mask, as she focused back on the view across the street. "They'll still fight. Even if you're gone, they'll still try to make a difference."

"They wouldn't put themselves in danger like that." She said, not sounding very confident.
"They feel just as responsible as you do, and you know that. A lot more than feelings will be hurt if you leave. Guaranteed." Buffy was silent, and then he gestured to Willow. "What about her?"

The redhead was looking left and right, searching for any sign of her. There was uncertainty in her _expression, sadness.

Buffy cleared her throat, her resolve cracking. "She'll be better off."

"Are you sure?" He asked, adding to the doubt already in her mind. "How about all those things that make her who she is? What do you think'll happen to them?"

The innocence...the brightness...the positive outlook...

"They'll still be there." She said, cracking some more.

"Maybe...or maybe she won't be the same again." Angel spoke the harsh truth she didn't want to hear. "All because you're afraid to walk over there, and love her."

The slayer was indignant. "I'm not afraid."

"Prove it." He challenged, and she didn't budge. "If you're waiting for me to tell you it's okay that you do..." Was she? "Then it is. Go be happy. Don't run away from this. I ran for a hundred years. It never works."

"What about us? What were we?" She questioned, desperately wanting to know.

"We were two...people, who met at the right time. I think we needed to." He was sincere as he continued. "I became a better...no, I *did*...become a person when I was around you, which was something I thought I'd forgotten how to do." He smiled again. "You loved me, and everything changed."

"You were so different. You didn't treat me like a kid, you didn't care that I wasn't perfect...you accepted me, flaws and all." She returned the smile. "That meant a lot, you know."

"I'm just glad I was given the chance. I wouldn't be where I am now, if I hadn't been." He paused briefly. "Thanks."

She returned the sentiment, her eyes and her smile doing the thanking for her. Then she found Willow once more. "Can I?"

He nodded. "I think you can." His gaze went to Willow as well. "And I think she can, too. She's tougher than she looks."

"Understatement." Buffy grinned.

"So what're you waiting for?" Angel dared her.

"Beats me." She took a deep breath, all thoughts of leaving banished from her head. "This the part where we...?" She trailed off, searching for him.

He'd already gone. Before she had time to dwell, she noticed the gang heading into school. Her mind made up, she ran after them. "Hey, wait up!"

They all turned around.

*****************************************************************************************************************************

Willow was smiling in relief. "Told you." She said to Xander. "How's...?"

"Happy. Thanks to you." She smiled at her.

"Me?" The redhead asked in confusion.

If the spell hadn't been performed, if Angel's soul hadn't been returned to his body, it would've been lost in nothingness. But whoever was paying attention upstairs, did something right. As Angel, not Angelus, got caught in the closing the vortex, saving the world, the Powers rescued his soul from damnation, leaving the demon to rot for eternity.

She didn't explain this to Willow, but silently promised she would later. "Giles, there was this tiny problem of me being expelled." She spoke to her watcher.

"I'll take care of it." He cryptically spoke, and nobody asked him to elaborate.

The slayer saw Oz pushing Willow, then. "Mind if I take over?"

"Go for it." The guitarist acquiesced.

Buffy got behind the chair and started to push. "Want me to go real fast?"

Willow nodded enthusiastically, and when they were far enough away, she looked up at her driver. "It happened, didn't it?"

"If we're thinking about the same 'it,' then yeah, it did." The blonde answered cautiously.

"I am if you are." The redhead responded.

One hurtle down.

Buffy nodded. "So are we...you know, still gonna try this?"

The hacker was concerned. "Do you still want to?"

"That's about the only thing I wanna do right now." Buffy was honest, putting her heart on the line.

"Really?" Willow brightened, and exhaled air she didn't even realize she was holding onto. "Good, cause...I'm totally onboard with the wanting."

And the big one fell, leaving relief in its wake.

The slayer smiled down at her, and held her hand, as their friends caught up with them. "Whew. Talk about reassuring."

"What's reassuring?" Xander curiously asked, and for some reason, Cordelia smacked him. "Ow...pain."

"Uh, nothing, Xand." Buffy said, trying to deflect the question. It was too soon. "Willow and I just feel the same way about --"

"Wheat!" Willow supplied, receiving a look from the blonde. "I mean...grain." Still with the look. "Um, or both. Uh huh, wheat and grain." Then she considered it. "Well, wheat is kinda grain, so...a-all grain, really. It's great."

"So you're both on the side of grain?" He puzzled over that.

"Yeah, weird, isn't it?" Buffy forced a laugh. "I like grain, she likes grain...imagine that. Grain fans. Us."

"We're just two of a kind, I guess." Willow said, putting a stop to all the double-meanings, and to the whole, silly conversation.

Then they all entered the school, beginning another day.



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