YearsContactFictionIWRY 2013



Buffy NFA.docx

Indeterminate Time

Name: Kairos

Summary: Through a series of conversations with past and present friends and lovers, Buffy tries to understand what changed between her and Angel.

LJ: perpetual.livejournal.com

Rating: General

Author Note: This story ties into several others I've written, most notably Smoke Damage and The Further Adventures of Spike and Faith. It's not necessary to read those before this one.

 

This story is unbeta'd, so forgive me my trespasses; they are all my own. Great thanks and admiration for all of the authors this year and especially Dark Star our queen.

**

“Is that everyone?”

Buffy did some quick math, dividing up the number of the people she loved in this dying city. “I think so,” she said to Anne. “As long as all the Slayers have a safe place to sleep, we’re good. Xander and Giles got hotel rooms, and Dawn can stay with one of them.”

Anne nodded and made a note on her clipboard - where she had found a clipboard, Buffy didn’t know, but it seemed to just come with the package of being the most organized person in the ruins of Los Angeles. “What about you?” Anne asked.

“I’m going to stick with the troops. I don’t want the girls to think I’m getting comfy in a real bed while they’re roughing it on the floor.”

“Okay. I’ll go start getting them settled in. It’s really good to see you again, Buffy.”

Buffy tried to smile. “You too. Yeah. You’ve really...I mean, I’m glad...” She took a deep breath. “Anne, did you lose someone?”

The look on the former vampire groupie’s face made her look as vulnerable as her old self. “Today?” she said. “I don’t know. Probably. Probably more than one. Did you?”

“Not yet.” The only two people she had been looking for, both of them vampires, had survived somehow and were healing up somewhere underground. She wanted to tell Anne the whole story, not just the part about finding Angel in the ruins and giving him her blood to save him, but the whole thing, from the moment she was called as Slayer to the way she had felt an hour ago when Faith waved her away impatiently and told her Spike would be okay too, if you happen to give a damn about that, B. But Anne was a busy woman, and the opportunity the two of them had once had for relaxing together and sharing secrets was over, so the stories of loss would have to go untold this time.

Finding herself with nothing to do for the first time since her arrival, Buffy soon wandered into the temporary barracks to check on her army. Most were still awake, chattering excitedly or bartering blankets and pillows with each other, and all were unharmed. That might change soon, though, if Angel’s team had left any real fighting to them in addition to the relief and cleanup.

Buffy sat down on a crate in the corner, where nobody approached her. Everything is different now. She was glad to have a place to put the girls; the city was grateful for their presence and she expected they would be given all the resources and support they needed for as long as they were there. Still, for her it only highlighted the urgency of having so many dependents and no steady source of income. In a way, the LA disaster had come as a blessing, finally giving her Slayers a purpose. She wondered how Angel had always kept his team and business afloat.

Everything always came back to Angel, Buffy thought wearily as she leaned back against the wall, hugging her backpack. That was okay, though. Maybe it meant that Angel would always come back to her.

Dawn’s eyes looked strangely flat when she met Buffy in the hotel lobby. “Someone here to see you,” she said shortly. “I’ll be out in the courtyard.”

It was far too late for a visitor to be meeting her here, was Buffy’s first thought. “At eleven thirty at night?” she voiced it. “Who would - ohhh.”

Dawn raised an eyebrow, not quite nodding, and then stuffed her hands in her jacket pockets and walked slowly away. Buffy braced herself before knocking on the door of one of the rooms that Giles had booked. When she did, it was Giles’ own voice inviting her in.

He was seated on a wooden chair on one side of the room; Xander was across from him, sitting backward on his own. The only one there who looked completely at ease was on the third chair, legs stretched out in front of him so the soles of his big black boots faced Buffy. He was also the only one talking, telling some story of the battle heedless of whether Xander and Giles were really interested. Buffy found herself smiling warmly before she could think about what kind of reaction she wanted him to see her having. “Hello, Spike.”

He perked up, as if he hadn’t noticed her until she spoke, and pulled his feet under himself to stand. “If it isn’t the Slayer! Guess what, Buffy. I’m alive.”

“I see that.” She crossed her arms. She wasn’t going to go over and hug him, not while Xander and Giles were watching. Not when he wasn’t making any move to come over to her.

“Yeah.” He made a nonchalant gesture, probably wishing he could use it to light a cigarette. There were none in sight, but the odor of smoke still clung to him, even with the distance between them. “But it’s no surprise to you, is it?” he continued. “Might’ve been a few months ago. I’ll put in a bet that you even gasped. And from then on it was life as usual, until you found out your favorite forehead needed a hand.”

Of course he was angry. She shouldn’t be disappointed. “I’m sorry. I know. I should have come to see you. I just got all these Slayers thrown in my lap, and I’m not overflowing with travel funds...”

“...And you’ve got your priorities in some kind of order,” Xander chipped in, throwing a glare in Spike’s direction.

Spike glared right back at him. “Priority one, save the world. Check, mate. Thought that was worth a bit of a nod.”

Giles coughed. “I believe you’ve been adequately thanked for your involvement in the Sunnydale battle, Spike. And for a parade of other accomplishments, the authenticity of which is still largely in question.”

“Guys,” said Buffy. “Could I talk to Spike alone?”

They left reluctantly, but they did leave. Buffy sat down on one of the beds, but found herself rising again when Spike wouldn’t follow suit. “So,” she said, desperate to break the silence. “You want to start?”

He shrugged. “Angel’s fine.”

Buffy reeled a little and hoped it didn’t show. “Then why didn’t he - why are you telling me that?”

“That’s what you were waiting to hear, isn’t it? He’s underground. So am I, for the record. Bit crowded, so we can keep busy having our territorial disputes, it’s a hoot.”

“Right...” She furrowed her brow. “So...what’s your plan?”

Spike chuckled. “Plan? One year away and you’ve forgotten everything about me.”

“Fine, then what’s your goal? Idea? Inclination? Give me something to criticize here, Spike. You’re sharing a space with Angel, so I’m gonna shimmy out on a limb and say something has changed. Is it you? Me?”

He paused for a long time, making her remember the time he hadn’t spoken all night. He had said that it was the best night of his life - was he thinking about it now too? “You said you loved me,” he said at last, gracefully leaving any tone of questioning out of it.

She tilted her head. “You said I didn’t.”

The glimpse of an introspective Spike was gone instantly. “Well, I thought I’d be sporting and give you a chance to put together a good retort. Didn’t really have time for it back there, me burning up and all.”

“You want me to say it again? Is that it?”

He held up his hands. “Done with asking you for anything.” He lowered them again. “Also done with giving back whatever you offer me, though.”

“I don’t have anything to offer you,” she insisted. “I told you. I don’t even know how to get my people through the next month. I’ve been running on private donations since I left Rome. I can’t be thinking about how to fill up my free time. I don’t have any.”

Spike looked dejected. “You won’t need my help, then?”

She tried not to shrug; it was bad enough to have to be so blunt with him. “What kind of help can you give?” A few long seconds went by, and she was the next to speak. “You know, I grieved for you. Alone. None of my friends would have understood, so I never even told them I missed you.”

“Hrm,” he grunted. “So you ran off on your own and took another name and lived anonymously as a depressed waitress, is what you’re saying.”

“Spike,” she groaned, exasperated. “Stop trying to compare yourself to Angel. You don’t have to be him. I don’t want you to be him. Anyway, I was a different person back then. I can’t afford to go on grief-induced temporary retirement jaunts anymore.”

He waved a hand. “Right, you’ve got that army to get through the month. I suppose you still wouldn’t enlist me to find you a bit of cash through alternative methods?”

Buffy shook her head, hiding a wry half-grin at the same time. “I’ve kept this thing legal so far, not gonna take up the gangsta lifestyle now.”

“Still.” He fixed her with his earnest eyes. “I’ll see what I can do. Legally.”

It wasn’t a very hopeful proposition, but he clearly meant it in good faith and she appreciated it. “I’m sorry I wasn’t the one to find you. I’m glad you made it out of the apocalypse zone okay.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Did she even tell you about it?”

“Who, Faith? Yeah, she said she dug you out of some rubble, while I was with--” She clamped her mouth shut, too late to keep him from getting back on his new favorite topic.

“Angel,” he finished for her. “You fed him your blood, saved his life. That’s what Faith did for me.” He softened his tone, a reaction, she guessed, to something he saw in her eyes. “We’re both alright, luv. There’s a party she’ll be at tomorrow, if you’d like to come along and have a chat with her.”

Buffy felt a flash of resentment at everyone attending social engagements she hadn’t even known about. “Like I have time to be partying,” she snapped.

Spike shrugged. “Can we carry on outside?”

They passed Dawn in the hall, who was coming back in but not, apparently, to find them. She had only a glance for Buffy and wouldn’t even acknowledge Spike with that much before she returned to the hotel room. Buffy checked Spike’s reaction to this kind of slight and found him staring determinedly forward. She decided not to bring it up.

Nobody else was in the courtyard, a carefully groomed array of stone tiles and potted trees circling a large pool, which was covered for the night. Buffy sat down on a ledge near the door through which they had exited the hotel and hugged her knees, watching Spike light up his cigarette and pace a few strides in front of her.

“Why hasn’t Angel come to me?” Buffy asked. Since hearing Spike talk about his rescue at the hands of Faith, it had become more painful to hold it in than it was to say it. She hadn’t expected a fruit basket, but the Angel she knew had always found a way to show that her efforts were not in vain. This time it was as if saving his life had shut down all his motivation to even talk to her.

“Full calendar?” Spike replied. “Rescue an innocent, defeat a monster, oops, forgot to pencil Buffy in before the hair appointment?” Then, too casually, he added, “Ah, I wouldn’t worry overmuch about it. You’ve got that forever love, don’t you?”

Buffy tapped her fingers on the rough surface of the ledge, trying to remember how to control the art of hiding a deep inner sorrow by voicing it as a grumpy riposte. “You make me sound like a kid dreaming of a fairy tale. I never said anything to you about Angel and me having a forever love.”

“No?” He puffed the word out with a breath of smoke and mild surprise. “Oh, right. That was him. ‘Ours is a forever love.’ Big tender heart, that one.”

“He said that?” She knew Spike wasn’t lying, but she couldn’t think of any other response. Something within her had gone numb.

He nodded. “Angel and me, we went to Rome to find you. Found your little Wells instead, so I’m sure you’ve heard all about it. We had a bit of a row along the way - I won - and old Captain Forehead straightened me out about how things really happened with Acathla. Quite clever of you two, by the way. I knew you’d killed him, but the bit where he told you to do it really ices the story.”

Buffy leaped to her feet as if her seat had ejected her. “He never--!”

“Well not in words, no, but with his eyes?” Spike waggled his fingers at his own eyes to demonstrate. “Signaled you, didn’t he?”

Maybe he was lying, after all. Maybe he just wanted to rattle her. Ever since Andrew had come back from Rome, telling her that he had to divulge a huge secret because he knew that getting her and Spike back together was the right thing to do, she had wondered exactly what had happened between them, and Angel, and whether it was the reason that neither vampire had reached out to her again. Truthfully, it had hurt to hear that both were so easily fooled by her imposter, but Giles had advised her against interfering with any such misconceptions. It was better, he said, to know that the decoy was working.

“Suppose you might have missed that,” Spike went on, as if he couldn’t plainly see her temper about to break. “Rather unbalanced at the time, weren’t you, putting a sword through your bloke like that. I always wondered, what were your Scoobies thinking then?”

Buffy balked, losing the comeback that had been on her tongue. “What do they have to do with it?”

He shrugged. “Angel’s just put you through the heartbreak of a lifetime, and everyone decides you’re the one who’s got to take him out? Seems like a rotten thing for a mate to do. Of course, tragic hero that you are, you probably insisted on it. ‘No, Pa,’” he quoted in a mimicked Southern drawl that would have been funny if she weren’t so angry at him, “Yeller’s mah dog. Ah’ll do it.”

“God damn you, Spike!” Buffy exploded. “I didn’t want to fight you anymore! I wanted this to be the one simple honest friendship in my life I could actually keep alive! I told you, I missed you!”

You forgot me!” he thundered. Every last shred of humor dissipated from the atmosphere as the condemnation hung between them. Spike dropped his cigarette, ground it out with his toe, and continued with his volume diminished, but not his fury. “You don’t know how that feels. I got a soul for you. I died in your Hellmouth. Now I find you again, and all you want is a simple bloody friendship. Well, bugger that. We’re not going shoe shopping together and I don’t need to copy your homework.”

For a moment Buffy could see it all so clearly. She could shout back at him, keep goading him until he said something else that crossed a line, and then she would punch him, hard, a hit that only a vampire of his strength could take. Around the courtyard they would go, trading blows, trading insults, wearing themselves down with the scorn and energy they released on each other, until finally Spike ran through the hotel to the front desk and got them a room. She could spend an entire night without thinking about Angel or private donations or whether her friends should have acted differently so long ago, and she could lie about it the next morning and pretend it had never happened.

Before the thought had even passed she knew it was nonsense. That escape route was closed to her; it had been since before Spike had returned from Africa, remade in another image. Everything is different now.

She had been remade too. She saw the choice before her now: give herself without reservation to the man begging for her love, or lose the chance forever. His hard blue gaze shimmered under the patio lights like the wet cover on the pool, and she had the sense that he knew exactly what he was waiting for.

A few more seconds ticked by, and her shoulders slumped. “I have to be up early tomorrow. The city’s only going to put the girls up for as long as I can show them we’re earning our keep.”

His sigh seemed to echo against the brick walls around them. “Fine. I should get back underground.”

“Spike…” She hesitated. Surely this conversation had gone on long enough.

“Go on then,” he challenged.

Buffy closed her eyes for a moment, then looked squarely at him. “I do know how it feels. You keep thinking you’ve got people in your life that you can count on no matter what, and then one day it’s put to the test…”

“...And someone fails.” He nodded. His voice was kind, but in a way she had never heard from him before. He spoke as if he not only understood her pain, but understood that there was no answer for it. “Angel hasn’t said a word to me about you, luv. I don’t know what’s got into him. I’m sorry.”

All of a sudden there were tears in her eyes, but she blinked them back. She could save them for Dawn, or Giles. “I thought if I ever saw you again I’d be so happy,” she said bitterly. “I thought, ‘Just one more hour with him and I could put everything right between us.’ But that was the fairy tale, wasn’t it? Do you realize we’ve just spent more time talking about Angel than about either of us?”

Spike stepped forward until he was right in front of her. His fingertips brushed tenderly against her cheek, and Buffy had the unsettling sensation that after everything she had done with him, all of the nameless acts of sex and violence they had shared, all the orifices and protrusions explored, all the hard truths revealed, the fear laid bare, the shame and fury, the desperation, and the long nights of believing that their lives were so entangled that there could be no separating them, after all of it, that this - this one meaningless incident of looking up into his swimming pool-colored eyes with their new kindness - was the most intimate moment that had ever passed between them.

Spike’s hand moved to her arm to steady her, as if the spinning of her mind had carried over to her body, but it didn’t stay there long. His lips hovered at her ear, and he whispered, “Take a hint.” With that and a quick kiss to her cheek, he was gone, coat flapping behind him as he left the patio with long, silent strides.

Only when the automatic glass doors had closed behind him could Buffy find the connection between the significance of that last moment and her own discomfort with it. She had verbalized nothing that she was feeling, and Spike had understood all of it. The last time she had experienced that level of communication was with a different vampire, in a different time and place, a different life.

What she had told Spike was true, then. She never wanted him to be Angel.

 

 

The room contained little more than eight chairs around a table and a water cooler in the corner; it was too impersonal to be intimidating, yet somehow Buffy was intensely aware of her sweaty tank top as soon as she entered. She was probably just nervous about bringing Slayer business into an official setting, she reasoned. In any case, at least it was air conditioned.

Robin Wood and Anne were standing at the far end of the table, leaning over a laptop and exchanging rapid words with each other. Buffy knew that Anne had become one of the leading organizers of the Los Angeles disaster relief movement and that Wood was cautiously establishing himself as an intermediary between the city’s human population and the various occult groups threaded into it, but she had very little idea of what the two of them had to discuss. As soon as she had seen how complicated the world was becoming after this latest apocalypse, she had made the choice to strictly contain her own involvement to Slayer business. With girls being chosen all over the world and no Watchers’ Council to guide them, she couldn’t afford to spread herself too thin, and it seemed that there were now more representatives for magic and warriors than she had ever known.

“Xander said you wanted to touch base with us before we headed to the airport,” she greeted Wood as he finished what he was saying to Anne and looked up. “He’s right behind me. We’ve got about forty minutes. Hi, Anne.”

“Hi, Buffy. You should come look at this.” Anne gestured at the laptop. She and Robin were wearing identical expressions, Buffy noticed - wary, but more intrigued than confused. Buffy slipped around the corner of the table to see the screen.

The first thing she noticed was her own name, followed by a list of financial figures in staggering amounts. “Is this more debt?” she groaned. “Please, I’m already throwing everything I can at this. The LA bank says they can--”

“It’s not debt,” Robin broke in. “These are credits.”

Buffy considered that statement from a few angles, then offered the sharpest commentary on it that she could come up with. “Huh?”

Robin scrolled down, revealing more numbers, the names of a few cities in America and Europe, some dates, paragraphs of fine print, and certain words in capital letters repeated several times, like ‘ACCESS’ and ‘CONFIRMED’. “You see?” he said. “It’s completely legal.”

I am so not in the mood for this, thought Buffy, rubbing her eyes. “Sure, but I’m tired and I crash computers by touching them on a good day. Just tell me what I’m looking at, please.”

He nodded, still appearing calm, and pointed to the inconspicuous logo in the page’s header. “This is a bank that specializes in untraceable private accounts. Six days ago, they opened one in your name so that someone could transfer all of these funds into it. You’re the only one who can withdraw from it, but they’re so discreet that they wouldn’t inform you about its existence through any method other than a face-to-face messenger, and, well, the one they sent you is dead.”

“Geez. May he rest in peace, I guess.”

Xander entered then, sizing up the room in the same way that Buffy had before joining them at the computer. “What are we up to?” he asked of no one in particular.

“Our necks in money, apparently,” Buffy replied without taking her eyes off the screen. “We were just getting to the part where Robin explains where it came from.”

“Holy smokes,” said Xander, peering at the funds indicated on the site. “All that is Buffy’s? From who?”

Buffy answered before Wood could, needing to air her hunch about it. “Who likes to go behind my back and leave me ill-advised presents? Starts with an A, hopefully ends with an L.”

“Angel?” Anne and Xander said it almost at the same time. Robin glanced at everyone and then finally seated himself to make it easier for the rest of them to gather around the spot at the table. Buffy followed suit, and Xander and Anne remained standing behind them. “Did he survive?” Anne continued. “Did you find him?”

“Yes, and no,” said Buffy. “I mean, yes and yes, but then yes to the first yes, and the second yes turned into a no...I don’t think he wants to see me. I know I won’t find him if he doesn’t want to be found.”

“I found him.” Wood dropped the words into the conversation like a coin, but they fell like a boulder. Three astonished pairs of eyes were turned to him, but nobody seemed to be able to construct another question, Buffy herself least of all.

Fortunately he continued his explanation without prompting. “There’s a mystic sage running a teahouse on the outskirts of the damage,” said Robin. “I don’t know how he gets his information, but he knew about your messenger and he knew about Angel, and he set up a meeting so Angel and I could fill each other in. Your ex is a decent guy, for a vampire. He’d been trying to find a way to get you into your account, but he was anxious that it should come to you from a friend.” He raised a wry eyebrow at her. “I was duly touched.”

Xander leaned closer, reaching over Buffy’s shoulder to scroll through the account information. “That’s a heartwarmer alright,” he said to Robin. “How’d he even know who you were?”

“I tried to contact him last year. He’d already moved out of his hotel, I don’t know to where, but one of my calls eventually got through to him and he responded just to say it wasn’t currently safe to know him, and that he’d find me later.”

Buffy searched for memories that would correspond with these events. “When last year?”

“When you and Faith were fighting. She and I talked about splitting off from the rest of your group.”

“Okay, but when last year?” The time had gone by in a whirlwind. It seemed like just last week, Buffy had been ushering Slayers off of the bus, and Faith had just begun butting heads with her over long-term strategy for their training and accommodation.

“Buffy.” Xander wrenched his eyes away from the laptop screen. “We don’t have a lot of time. Whatever’s going on with Angel, we’ll have to deal with it from New York.” He paused, then added with great reluctance, “Unless you want me to go ahead of you and try to book you on another flight. But I don’t know how much there is to say about the payload in question. There’s only one place he could have gotten that much money, right?”

She nodded. “Wolfram & Hart. It’s alright, Xander. I’m getting on the plane with you.”

Anne jerked with genuine surprise. “How would Angel get Wolfram & Hart’s money? Is that why the firm went under?”

“Sort of.” Buffy didn’t need to keep any secrets from Anne, but Wood would have to fill her in; Xander wasn’t wrong about their tight schedule. She sighed. “I need to talk to Giles before I make any decisions here.”

“I thought you might,” said Robin. “Call me when you get a chance. Your account isn’t going anywhere, but if I’m the guy in charge of the LA Slayers HQ, I’m sure I have a lot to say about how our funding gets divvied up.”

The thought of allotting funds to Robin, as the leader of those who were staying here in the city to represent the Slayers, made Buffy think about the potential fortune she’d been given in a new light. It wasn’t just a gift from Angel to her; it was a donation to her military organization from a wealthy benefactor. Oddly enough, she immediately felt better about it. If she did choose to accept the money - and she wasn’t at all sure about that yet, but now she could at least imagine doing so - she could provide her girls with training facilities, temporary and permanent places to live, education, tools, and legal backing if they ever needed it. She could get Wood and Faith out of their hotels and give them the salaries they were worth, not to mention Xander and Willow. Her entire operation could become truly legitimate, a project with an impact and a future. Angel knew that. He was offering assistance for a cause he believed in.

On the way to the airport, she tried to consider the question of whether she should take the money, but found herself distracted from it by the question of how to put it to use, and the far less urgent but much more nettlesome question of where she stood with Angel. It didn’t help that Xander was completely focused on figuring out their next step, and kept interrupting her thoughts to bring her back to the topic at hand. “I know you think we need the money,” he said, “and I know you’re mostly right. But we’re gonna get by if you say no, I swear. You still have a choice. You don’t have to be in debt to him for the rest of your life.”

By the time they got out of the car, Buffy had spent all of the money in her head multiple times over, analyzed Angel’s trustworthiness from every angle, and relived the experience of watching his wounds heal before her eyes as she fed him her blood in vivid detail, but had come no closer to settling on a course of action. Xander’s feelings on the matter were doubtless colored by his feelings on the vampire, but he had a point. Accepting such a lump sum would indebt the Slayers to Angel, which would inevitably give him a measure of control over them. If she couldn’t fully count on him, that might be a big deal, and if he wouldn’t even show up in person to speak to her, she might not be able to fully count on him. Everything is different now.

The Los Angeles International Airport hadn’t been directly affected by the destruction in the city, but due to the subsequent chaos, it had been off-limits to civilians until recently. Buffy and Xander had managed to book an outgoing flight without much trouble, but those who didn’t share their official status as rescuers were less fortunate. The airport was reopening gradually, just one gate at a time, and getting a seat on a plane meant lengthy applications, waiting for hours or days, and sometimes just blind luck. There was a crowd when Buffy and Xander went to get their boarding passes, but Buffy knew that only a fraction of the people she saw would actually be flying today.

They had come substantially early, as they had been advised to, and as soon as they had checked their bags Xander noticed that Starbucks was open and asked if she wanted to sit down there while they waited. Buffy had just noticed something quite different: a tall man in a black coat, his back to her as he examined the one flight information screen that was running. “Order me a mocha,” she said to Xander. “I’ll meet you in a minute.”

As she approached the man and her certainty that it was Angel increased, joy began welling up in her heart. He must have come when he had heard that she was leaving California. She wouldn’t stay for his sake, but he must have known that, and simply had an apology - or a thank you - or an explanation he wanted to give her before she was gone. It would all be okay. He was still her Angel.

He seemed to catch her scent and turned to look for her before she had reached him, but the movement was too fast, too startled, and Buffy frowned. “I haven’t left yet,” she said. She had meant to say it in a teasing way, but it came out toneless.

“Buffy,” he replied, and she passed through a moment of internal unkindness, wondering how such an intelligent man could so consistently make himself sound like a complete moron.

“Look,” she sighed, “I know you’re justifiably paranoid about going public right now. There are a lot of people after you for all kinds of crazy reasons, and yeah, some of those people are probably mine. But if you do something for the Slayers, you’re doing something for me, and you don’t need to beat around the bush with it. You should have trusted me.”

A glimmer of hope seemed to reach his otherwise expressionless face. “You’re keeping the money?”

“I don’t know yet,” she said quickly. “I just want to be able to talk like we used to. I mean -” she blushed. “Not like we used to in Sunnydale. After that, when you had Angel Investigations and I had my Scoobies, and if I ever needed to ask you something or pass on some relevant news, I could just call you up. Remember that? And if you had a hard day, you could call me and I could try to make you feel better. And you came when my mother died, and Willow went to get you when I died, and that one Christmas I mailed you some paper snowflakes and you sent me that little Nativity scene drawing you did. That’s all I want, Angel. Open lines of communication. We shouldn’t have to do this dance where you come dashing to the airport after me because there’s one more thing you had to say.”

He looked chagrined, she thought, or nervous, but then she realized that he simply looked the same as he had when he first saw her approaching him. “Okay,” he said cautiously. “We can do that. But...well, there isn’t one more thing I had to say.”

She recoiled, at a loss. “Then why are you here?”

Angel looked back up at the screen, then at his feet, then back at her. “To pick up my girlfriend.”

 

 

The phone was ringing in the tiny apartment Buffy and Dawn were sharing in Queens, but Dawn had left the premises and Buffy didn’t feel like withdrawing her hands from the soapy dishwasher, rinsing and drying them, and then maybe not getting back to finish the dishes because someone had some kind of emergency that took up her attention for the rest of the day. Dawn had complained constantly that Buffy hadn’t done her share of the dishes, and while at the time that had mostly served as a good excuse for some amiable bickering, now that the chores were Buffy’s sole responsibility, she felt repentant, not to mention intent on proving to herself that she could be her own housekeeper.

Four loud annoying rings, and then the answering machine picked up and Xander’s voice filled the apartment. “Hello, Buffy! This is your highly respected Watcher, Giles! Jolly good! I’m just sipping tea and cleaning my glasses, and I thought I’d give you a ring to say you should jolly well take the bloody money from bloody An--”

Buffy gave a frustrated groan, wiped her hands on her jeans, and snatched the cordless phone from its base. “Xander, what the hell are you talking about?”

“Hey Buff. I know I’ve been the voice of don’t-accept-the-evil-money so far, but I’m sitting here in our crappy office and a piece of the ceiling just fell off. And this isn’t just a matter of one bad tile, this is a full ceiling replacement deal, and that’s to say nothing of the hundred and fifty other things I’m trying to fix in this place, and long story short, we can’t afford it.”

“There’s plenty of what we can’t afford. I nearly broke my ankle tripping over the remains of that mini-wall you took down. You’re not going to make up my mind based on a ceiling tile.”

“It landed in the plant. Next one will be on your head while you’re sitting at your desk talking to someone important. Mark my words.”

“I told you, I’m not spending one nickel of that cash bomb until Giles gets here with the rest of the lowdown on it.”

“I know! That’s why I was pretending to be him. Clever, huh?”

“Goodbye, Xander.”

“If I fix the thing that tripped you, will you promise to become immeasurably wealthy and get us out of this Hellmouth-inspired office?”

There was a knock at the door. “Augh!” Buffy yelled at the phone. “He’s here. I am never going to finish those dishes!” She pressed the button to hang up on him and went to let Giles in.

He looked tired, and Buffy was starting to realize that she had that exact thought every time she saw him again after a few weeks of absence. Everything is different now. She worried about him, but then, everyone she knew seemed to look tired a lot lately, and she was more or less accustomed to being in a constant state of worry about them. She could only imagine what everyone thought when they saw her.

Giles had flown in from Los Angeles the day before. He had stayed behind to keep everyone’s continuing efforts coordinated: Anne with her disaster relief and shelters, Robin Wood with his regional defenses and alliances with occult groups, Faith setting up shop in Cleveland, and Buffy’s own plans for a worldwide network of Slayers. They started out by discussing his progress with the latter and his news on everything else, but Buffy knew that he had intended to seek out Angel too, and soon she asked about it, without embarrassment or caution. Angel was merely business now; he had ensured that himself.

“There’s no reason you shouldn’t accept the account,” Giles said right away, and continued right through her open astonishment. “It’s quite safe and legally yours, and I’m convinced you should begin employing it at once. Good Lord, Buffy, how long have you been living with that ceiling in your office?”

Buffy stared. “Back up. I wasn’t even expecting you to give me a straightforward opinion, let alone a gung-ho endorsement. How are you so sure that Angel isn’t going to turn around and demand something in return?”

“I believe he knows you better than to expect you would comply.”

That much was probably true enough, she had to admit. “Well, what about the ethics of it? This money came from Wolfram & Hart. It’s…what do you call it. Blood money. Tainted. Right?”

He nodded gravely, one hand at his glasses. “This is a fortune built on tragedy. To be sure. Every dollar must have the story of a ruined life behind it. If we could go back through time and, and find each victim, reimburse them, repair the damage, then of course, that’s what I would advise. But the best that we can do now is to help those in need, and use what power we have to turn Wolfram & Hart’s resources into a force for good.”

Buffy blinked, sitting up straighter. “You mean we should donate it?”

Giles gave her a crafty look. “You’re no stranger to helping those in need, Buffy, and it hasn’t been through charity donations.”

The truth of what he was telling her began to dawn, with such hopeful implications that her heart was beating faster. “My girls. The Slayers. We can send them all over the world, let them fight evil everywhere. We’re the best there is at killing vampires. We can finally make a real difference. Giles, you’re a genius!”

“Not to argue,” he said with a modest smile, “but I was simply paraphrasing what Angel told me. You see, his offer is legitimate and without strings. I spoke with Faith extensively as well, and she confirmed it: he’s committed to the Slayer cause, and he quite naturally views you as its leader.”

Buffy was still glowing with the thought of the new possibilities being opened, but the mention of Faith sobered her a little. She didn’t need another nail in the coffin of Angel’s feelings for her, but they kept coming anyway. Faith and Angel weren’t romantic, she knew that, but somehow Faith had become his confidant, while Buffy heard all the news about him third-hand. “So, did he totally bankrupt himself with this? No leftover funds for, say, taking a trip out to New York and introducing me to his new girlfriend?”

Giles sighed. “Actually, both of them plan to head to Cleveland next, to help Faith, ah, put down her roots there. I’ll join them myself for a time, but I’m afraid the situation with the loose ends from the Watchers’ Council has become rather urgent, and I’ll need to get a flight to London within a few days.”

“Already?” She had hoped that Giles would be with her for at least a month. “Well, I guess everyone’s got places to go. Problems to solve. Werewolves to…”

He cleared his throat, loudly. “I understand you’re upset with Angel. His conduct of late has hardly been above reproach, but it’s most important that we can count him as an ally and not a threat. If he’s making a particular effort to avoid you, he has his reasons as always, and given the circumstances I’m less inclined to question his choices in matters of etiquette.” He gave her a reproving look. “Also, I met Nina and she’s a lovely girl, there’s no call to find fault with her.”

Buffy held up her hands. “Fine. No grudges. I’ll get started on spending that money.” She pushed her chair back, her mind already on how to buy an entire apartment building in New York City and move dozens of Slayers into it. She was far from home here, and she missed it, but at least she was far from Angel, too.

“I’m pleased to hear it,” Giles replied. “But Buffy, there’s one more thing you should know. If you’re willing to relocate the Slayer headquarters to Los Angeles, Angel is offering you his hotel.”

 

 

In the outer office, Xander was banging away with his tools, and Buffy sat at her desk behind a closed door, staring miserably at her computer. She had a pile of work to do, mostly involving bookkeeping and communication with Slayers who had contacted her but hadn’t yet been registered as members of her ever-growing ‘Council’. She still called them Potentials out of habit, but each had been Chosen when she and Willow cast the spell with the Scythe, or at some point afterward. Through various means they were finding their ways toward guidance, and each other. Buffy had tried to reach out to them, but she had to be discreet. The last thing she wanted was interference from the government.

At the moment, though, she couldn’t even seem to start an email. The official opening of her account from Angel had added a world of complications to her life, and she didn’t know where to go to get a suitable financial advisor. Giles had left that morning, and she already missed him. Willow was constantly on the move, Kennedy always in tow, and Buffy missed her even more.

Worst of all, Dawn had decided that Cleveland was the place where she was needed most, and that morning she had called to say she was ditching the plan to come back to Queens before the new school year began. Buffy didn’t want to be away from her, but she only wished it was as simple as missing her sister: Dawn’s intelligence and researching skills had been an invaluable asset to the operation. Now the New York team was pared down to Buffy herself, Xander, a few junior Slayers, and Andrew.

Really, she might as well move back to LA. She wanted to talk to someone about it, but she had discovered certain limits lately to what counted as safe topics with Xander. He seemed to take it for granted that after Angel’s confusing behavior over the last few months, even Buffy would see that his distaste for her former love was justified. The way his expression hardened at any mention of Angel hadn’t changed, except that now, she sensed, it had a protective edge. Deep down inside he was probably gloating - again - that he’d been right about Angel all along, which annoyed her deeply. He was also the most hardworking and versatile person on her team, and she depended on his support more than ever. No such thing as a simple friendship, she thought. I should tell Spike about this. He’d love it.

She shivered. Since she’d moved here she had been telling everyone she loved New York, and it was true in some ways, but she didn’t love the weather. Truthfully, she was homesick for California, and living in a classy Los Angeles hotel with room for all of her charges sounded like heaven. Xander, who had adjusted to the Big Apple much better than she had, could hold down the office with Andrew and the local Slayers, and Buffy could finally establish a real home for herself.

Once again, the opportunity was so advantageous that she barely felt she had a choice but to accept Angel’s offer. Once again, he was wrapping her around his finger on a professional level, while rejecting her outright on a personal one. Everything is different now.                    

In the other room, she heard the radio turned off, then Xander’s voice conversing with a woman. Buffy had told him that she wanted to be left alone to finish her work, but she wasn’t getting anywhere with it anyway. She raised her voice to be heard through the door. “Xander, if that’s a Potential, just send her in.”     

 

 

Even once the Hyperion belonged legally to Buffy, it took some time for her to step through its doors in person. The initial sprint around the world that she and the Scoobies had made to recruit Slayers had carried her name overseas, and with her business so spread out, on a few occasions she had found herself needing to be two places at once. Now she was knocking on a door in Italy, even farther from home than New York had been, but with touches of familiarity that she had missed without realizing it.

Julia was a warm, modest young woman who had been among those called as a Slayer the moment Willow cast her spell. The first time they had met, Buffy had been amazed at how closely the girl matched her height, build, and even facial features, despite their age difference. She had immediately approved her as the Rome-based Buffy doppelganger - her ambivalence about even having a doppelganger notwithstanding.

Now, seeing Julia with her naturally brown hair dyed to match Buffy’s shade of blonde, and wearing an outfit that Buffy would have bought for herself in a heartbeat, the illusion was almost disconcerting. She wasn’t sure what to say. It seemed like such success at recreating another person’s physical appearance deserved some praise, but any compliment she came up with would just sound like vanity.

Fortunately, Julia saved her by speaking first. “Wow,” she said with a shy smile. “I got so used to playing you, it’s weird seeing the original again. Come on in.”

She stepped back, opening the door wider to welcome Buffy into the spacious, modern apartment where she was living, reportedly on her own. Buffy and Dawn had chosen the place and stayed there together briefly, but when they handed it over to Julia, Buffy made it clear that it was now hers to do with as she pleased, as long as she kept up a convincing front of being the real Buffy Summers. The reputation she developed for the persona didn’t matter; in fact, Giles had suggested that it would be better for Buffy to be seen as a little irresponsible in her retirement, so Julia was free to host whatever parties and overnight visitors she wanted.

Buffy snapped out of the trance that was starting to take her as she looked at the girl with her name and approximate shape. She reminded herself that Julia wasn’t a clone; she was a person with dreams and quirks of her own, who just happened to be living a Buffy-inspired life at the moment. “So how are things going?” Buffy asked, settling on the couch. “What have you been up to?”

Heading to the kitchen instead of sitting down, Julia answered over her shoulder, “Oh, nothing new. I keep a public presence, go to clubs and stuff. When I hear about vampires in the area I go take care of them, so everyone knows I’m still ‘the’ Slayer. You want an espresso?”

“Sure,” replied Buffy, without stopping to try to remember if she liked espresso. “Do you get a lot of vampires?”

“Not really. I mean, I don’t think they’re organizing. And anyway I’m not the only Slayer in town, so we’re keeping ‘em in check. Especially since Wolfram & Hart went under. God, how weird was that?”

Buffy winced, glad that Julia couldn’t see her at the moment. She didn’t want to explain that she was now in possession of the bulk of Wolfram & Hart’s fortune, or why. “<i>So</i> weird. At least some good came of it, though.”

The hum of a machine started up in the kitchen, and Julia raised her voice to be heard over it. “Yeah! And it’s not just here. It looks like the vamp population is going down in, like, every city that used to have one of their offices? Is that what you heard too?”

There was a clatter of dishes, and then Julia came back into the room, holding two tiny cups on saucers. Buffy smiled at her. “That’s right. And we’re going to have a lot more flexibility in how we use our mobile Slayer teams, now. Great things afoot.”

Julia’s own smile wavered for a second as she handed Buffy one of the cups and sat down across from her. “Yeah. But, um, is that why you’re here? Are you moving me onto one of those teams?”

Buffy blinked. “What? No, that wasn’t it at all. Unless you want to be. I’m just here to check up on things. There are a lot of changes happening soon at our New York and LA offices, and we’re adding one in Cleveland, and I wanted to make sure you were okay on your own here, since you’re the Rome leader. Actually, I guess this is a promotion.”

“Wow. Okay.”

“And if you are okay…”

“Yeah?”

Buffy shifted uncomfortably and tried a sip of espresso, which turned out to be too hot to taste. “Last year you had a couple vampires with souls trying to find you, right? What do you remember about that?”

“Angel and Spike?” Julia’s expression was innocent, but it felt odd for Buffy to hear those names coming from someone with such resemblance to herself. “I never actually talked to either of them. Andrew said they knew you personally, so he put them off my trail.”

“He didn’t trust them to know I wasn’t here?”

“He thought you didn’t trust them to know.”

That did sound like Andrew-logic. Buffy sighed deeply. “So he came up with that big fish about The Immortal?”

Julia held her own cup to her nose and inhaled. “He’d been working on that one for a while, just to add some color to your CV. Thing is, the guy found out about it and showed up here one day. Warned me to stop spreading rumors.” She looked down at her lap. “I think he thought I was just some upstart trying to namedrop, but he freaked me out. Gorgeous, but kind of...radiating power, you know?”

Buffy nodded slowly. “We shouldn’t have put you in that position. I’m sorry.”

“Well, now I take Andrew’s advice with a grain of salt,” Julia smiled. “And it didn’t ruin the decoy. The rumors just stopped circulating, so everyone thought that The Immortal and I - you - broke up.”

 “Huh. I guess Angel and Spike didn’t hear that part?”

Julia gave a rueful shrug. “I don’t know what they heard. Andrew told me that Angel couldn’t handle it that you moved on, and Spike was letting Angel influence him too much. Like, you and Spike were meant for each other, but Spike had to play it cool or he was going to ruin it.”

Buffy groaned. “And you can take that one with a whole saline plant.”

“I figured,” said Julia, stifling a giggle. “But...I mean, if you don’t mind me asking? Did you really have some kind of romantic history with two different vampires?”

To buy herself a few seconds before answering, Buffy tried another taste of the espresso. It was bitter, and she didn’t think she’d be able to finish it. “Can you keep this on the DL? It’s a lot more complicated than ‘romantic history’, but yes. They were both unique situations, and…” she stopped to think again, and then finished lamely, “...they were both a long time ago.” And everything is different now.

Julia looked rapt, but preoccupied, as if the secret were a puzzle she had to piece together. “Is there any way I can help? Talk to them, maybe?”

The way that she so freely offered her assistance, knowing there was no personal gain to be had and no moral obligation, gave Buffy a warm feeling that was tainted by the memory of her friendships in Sunnydale. How long had it been since Willow or Xander had given her that feeling? “Thanks,” she replied with a sincere smile. “I already talked to Spike, though. I think we’ve established that we’re not meant for each other.”

“And Angel?”

The question was expected, but somehow it still hit Buffy hard enough to make her drop her hands into her face for a moment. “Oh, God. I don’t know. I keep thinking it’s all in the past and I’m over him, and then something insane happens and I have to reevaluate our entire relationship.” She looked up. “Am I seriously unloading this on you?”

Julia gave her a lopsided smile. “You can. I won’t talk about it. Hey, if it helps, just pretend you’re talking to the mirror.”

Buffy pondered that. If she started to cry, the resultant blurry vision might even make her decoy into a believable reflection. The thought made her laugh, though the sound of it was a little choked. “Okay. Well. Back in New York I met this friend of his, and she gave me a diary he had been keeping the year after he broke up with me and left town. This woman, Kate, she came across the country to track me down and give me his diary, just because there were some references to me in it. She thought he was dead. I knew he wasn’t, but I had this smelly old book in my hands, and I’m not made of stone, I missed him, I wanted to know, you know? He’s been so damn frigid, I thought he was just totally done with me. So I read the thing.”

“And now you think he’s not?”

“See, that’s what’s driving me crazy. He wrote so many entries about how much he loved me, how he would always love me, he wished we could be together...he was always paranoid about saying that kind of thing in person, but of course he never meant for anyone to see the diary. What I mean is, he sounded exactly like I remembered him. Like I could always count on him loving me, even if we never saw each other again.”

Julia’s eyes widened with compassion. “Why did you break up in the first place?”

Buffy sighed, beginning to appreciate exactly how lengthy and convoluted her history with Angel had become. “He loses his soul and turns evil if he’s ever truly happy.” She checked Julia for skepticism or judgment, but there was none, and without that to cling to, she sank deeper into her introspection. “I’m not sure if the journal is really him. It’s his handwriting and his sketches and there are things that only he would know, but he also talked about this day that he and I spent together...and it never happened. It doesn’t sound like he lost his proverbial marbles, I’m just afraid there was a crossed-beam incident at some point and now there’s an alternate-dimension Angel running around in place of the old one. Or there’s both, and I don’t know which is which. I know I sound crackpot, but I swear, this is the kind of thing that happens around him! How am I supposed to talk to him about this diary when for all I know, he never even wrote it?”

Julia bit her lip. “Um, you’re the boss, Buffy, but...if there are two Angels, that sounds like the kind of thing he should know about.”

“Oh. Good point. Hey, you’re not supposed to be giving me logical reasons to talk to him.”

“Sorry. I’ll go back to mirror mode. Do you want another espresso? Or maybe something you’ll actually drink?”

Buffy took a look at her little cup, cold and lonesome on the coffee table. “I tried. I guess this is why Italy didn’t work out for me. Can I have something with sugar in it?”

During the minutes that followed, in which they both went into the kitchen and talked about nothing more significant than Rome’s best restaurants, Buffy felt like her tirade about Angel had been a streak of madness, from which she had emerged again as the rational, stoic woman she had to be. She decided that when Julia asked her to continue the story, she would tie it off with a generic statement and change the subject. She was no infatuated teenager, taking every chance she could to talk about her crush.

“So,” said Julia as they sat back down in the living room. “What--”

“The thing about Angel’s diary is that his apartment building got blown up like five years ago and Kate found the diary in the salvage, okay, so there’s been all this time since he wrote in it, and maybe none of it is relevant anymore. I mean, I saw him the next year, when my mom died, and then again when I was resurrected, and he even came to Sunnydale to help me craterize the Hellmouth, and we kissed that time so I thought we were on the same page, but I also gave him this line about cookie dough and I don’t know, maybe he just really took it to heart. And I tried to see him again after that, I really did, but I had all the Slayers to train and it was weird with him being at Wol - at Woolworth’s, because that’s not his style at all, and I know Giles talked to him, and Andrew saw him, and Spike was living with him so that’s like the perfect storm for getting a bad impression from my people. And then wham, there’s an apocalypse and he doesn’t even call me.” She laughed bitterly. “Giles and I had so many arguments about whether I could trust Angel. And now it turns out Angel doesn’t trust me.”

Julia sat silently through this like a spooked cat, and when it seemed Buffy was finished, she inquired with utmost caution, “Do you think you could summarize that for me?”

A long sigh shuddered through Buffy’s body. “Something changed,” she said simply. “He was in love with me, and now he isn't, and I don’t know what changed.”

When they said goodbye about an hour later, Buffy tried to apologize for her behavior. “Don’t think I’m not grateful for having your ear, but I didn’t mean to go off like that. Did I completely blow my cred as an authority figure?”

“I’m the authority figure here,” Julia replied with a mischievous smirk. “If anyone tries to tell me Buffy Summers isn’t the one in charge, I’ll set ‘em straight.” Her voice turned somber. “Buffy, I have to tell you, when you showed up I was so scared that you wanted to take back your flat and live by your name here. I love Rome. I love what I do, and the people I’ve met. I know sooner or later I have to go back to being Julia, but for now - well, being Buffy is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Alone at last on the streets of the ancient city, Buffy leaned back against the comforting permanence of solid stone, and tried to take stock of her life yet again. “Being Buffy,” she mused out loud. “Why didn’t I think of that?”

 

 

“Is this Buffy Summers?”

The voice on the line was young and male, and Buffy didn’t recognize it. She was familiar enough with the undertone of desperation, but after everything the team had done to finally get her installed in her hotel, surrounded by assistants and willing fighters, she wasn’t supposed to be the one taking calls from desperate individuals anymore.

“Who is this?” she challenged in response.

“I need help. I’m sorry to bother you but there is some seriously freaky stuff going on, and I was told Buffy is the one to go to. Can you meet me right away?”

“Who is this?” she repeated, more sharply.

“My name’s Connor.”

Connor. She didn’t know everything about him, but she knew enough. If this was really Angel’s son, he should have been safe at college - or Angel should have been the one keeping an eye on him.

Before she could end the pause herself, the voice continued, “Yes, that Connor. I’m at 450 Church Street. Will you come?”

Buffy’s mind clicked onto the address, and she blurted out, “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense. What are you doing there?”

“It’s a long story. Come as soon as you can. Thanks Buffy!”

Her next objection met a dial tone. She stared at the receiver for a moment, too confused to really be angry, and then shrugged and threw on a jacket with a stake tucked inside.

“Hey, where are you going?” came Willow’s voice as Buffy jogged down the stairs. “Thought this was Scooby meeting time.”

Buffy hopped to the side and came to a quick halt to avoid running into her friend’s form - not that it would have mattered. The real Willow was somewhere in South America and always on the move, but to keep in contact she had begun to rely on astral projection. At least twice a week she appeared in the Hyperion, and made regular ‘visits’ to other Slayer bases around the world, providing the best link that all of them had to each other. It worked well enough, but it had been going on so long that Buffy was starting to wonder if she’d ever be able to get a Willow hug again.

“Sorry. Got an emergency. I think.” As quickly as possible, she relayed the conversation she’d just had with Connor.

Willow frowned. “Wait, 450 Church St.? Isn’t that where Robin has his HQ?”

“Yeah. Doesn’t make sense, right?”

“Buffy, do we need to have the talk about walking into blatant traps?”

Buffy rolled her eyes in spite of herself. “You think Angel’s son and our friend Robin Wood are teaming up to lay a trap for me?”

“We’ve never even met Connor! You don’t know that was him. Maybe someone was using his name to draw you out.”

“If I’ve never even met Connor, why would anyone think I would go running off to save him?”

Willow threw up her hands. “Hey, <i>really good question!</i> At least tell me you’re bringing back-up.”

Buffy shook her head. Long minutes had passed since she got off the phone with Connor, and she was anxious to resolve the situation, whatever it was...and, if she was being honest with herself, to satisfy her curiosity about what kind of young man Angel had brought into the world. The most she had really heard from those who knew was that Angel loved him ferociously, which she would have assumed anyway. She supposed it didn’t matter; that alone was enough information for her to know that Connor’s safety was vital. “No,” she answered Willow. “This isn’t Slayer business. If it turns out to be a trap, tell someone to come rescue me. And let’s reschedule the meeting to tomorrow. Bye!”

Willow’s protests followed her out the door, but insubstantial as she was, she couldn’t do anything to stop her. Buffy moved quickly out into the night and reached Wood’s building in record time.

It was in an upscale neighborhood and six stories high; Buffy had bought it with Angel’s donation and given it over to Wood completely. He now used it as an office and training facility as well as a home for himself, his girlfriend, and a few students. Buffy was buzzed in by a red-haired girl who seemed around the right age to be a Slayer, though Buffy didn’t recognize her. Robin himself was nowhere in sight, but there were sounds of life coming from behind various doors.

“You’re here for Connor?” said the girl, without surprise or concern. She pointed to an elevator. “Top floor, balcony.”

The contrast of the casual encounter to Connor’s urgency on the phone only heightened Buffy’s impatience to find out what was going on, and she glared through the elevator’s entire journey, knowing she could have outrun it if she had been pointed at stairs instead. Finally it released her, and she immediately saw a pair of double doors that opened onto a balcony.

There was nobody there, and she whipped herself around, expecting the doors to lock behind her and seal the trap. Instead they swung lazily with the remainder of their momentum, and Buffy took a second look. There was a fine view of the brightly lit city, a few hanging flowerpots, and a small table with two chairs. The table had a single sheet of paper on it, held down by a rock. Buffy picked it up and saw to her surprise that it was a printout of an email, sent from a “c.reilly” at a Stanford University address. The text box read,

           

Thanks for coming to rescue me. I’m currently in my dorm eating Oreos and pretending to research a paper. Things are pretty good but if anyone wants to send me a care pack, I wouldn’t turn down some new clothes and more cookies.

Sorry about the deception, but it’s frankly ridiculous that the two of you are living in the same city but haven’t lifted a finger to get together and talk out your issues, which, from what I hear, are substantial.

Good luck. See you next time I’m in LA - hopefully, both of you at the same time.

 

As Buffy finished reading, she heard the elevator door open, and she stepped back to allow Angel to burst through the doors to the balcony, wielding a broadsword and wearing a panicked expression, which changed to bewildered when he saw her. He lowered the sword without loosening his grip on it. “Buffy?”

Wordlessly, she handed him the printout. “Ah,” he said as his eyes glided over it, and then, “Aheh.”

“I take it he gave you the same story I got?”

Angel grimaced. “I wonder if he knew I was supposed to be negotiating with a demon lord tonight. Kid might have just made me an enemy.”

“Well, the important thing is that he’s safe,” said Buffy mechanically. “I guess you’ll want to go back and see if you can salvage your demonic business relationships.”

“No.” Angel set his sword down on the little patio table and sat down heavily in one of the chairs. “I know I owe you an apology, Buffy. Let’s just do what Connor says.”

Buffy remained standing, leaning back against the rail and letting her peripheral vision take in the view. “I don’t even know where to start.”

“Ask me anything. I’ll tell you the truth.”

Anything. He hadn’t said she would only get one question, but she chose it as carefully as if he had. There was so much she wanted to know, about his feelings and his motives and everything he had been through since they parted, and she knew instinctively that his promise to tell the truth, at least this time, was unbreakable. She drew a deep breath and asked. “Where did you get your set of silver spoons?”

He paused to concentrate before answering, but she couldn’t tell if he was trying to analyze the question, or just to remember the spoons. “Istanbul,” he said.

Buffy nodded. “Have I asked you that before?”

“Yes.”

He hadn’t moved from his chair, and finally she pulled out the other and sat across from him, hands folded gravely on the table. “Sometimes I have this dream. You’re human, and I’m making love to you in your bed and falling asleep in your arms, and we talk about our future, and I’m so happy and content...I’d been writing it off as my brain being naughty, but some things always confused me. Before the part in bed, there’s a part that’s just me in LA feeling lousy, and then I’m sitting with you at a kitchen table, drinking tea and making small talk about spoons.” As she talked she began to hear the agitation in her own voice. “I couldn’t figure out why my subconscious mind would come up with that. It’s the same thing every time, all those irrelevant details, and, and I don’t even like tea…”

Angel twitched. “You don’t like tea?” he asked in a tone of personal affront.

“No. I never have.”

“You never told me.”

She rolled her eyes. “So? It never came up. Sometimes I drank it around Giles so I wouldn’t destroy his universe, but when you and I went out, I always ordered hot chocolate.”

“But if I offered you tea, why wouldn’t you just tell me you didn’t like it?”

“Well golly, Angel, I don’t know! Have we tested this hypothesis? Did you offer me some tea, and did we drink it sitting at your table in your kitchen, and did I stir it with a cute little spoon you got in Istanbul? Are you concealing something incredibly important that happened to me and bitching because I’m concealing my fucking beverage preferences?

He looked away from her, his shame evident. Good. She wanted a lot of explanation from him now that they’d begun this, but she wasn’t going to give any quarter to get it.

“It didn’t happen,” said Angel quietly. “You read the diary, didn’t you?”

Surprised that he was the first to bring it up, she didn’t hesitate before answering, “Yes. But providing an informative recap didn’t seem like your priority during that part.”

“I turned human through contact with Mohra blood. We had that one day, just like it was in your dream, but I found out that if things went on like that you would die. The Powers That Be turned back time so that the day didn’t happen and I was the only one who remembered it.”

Buffy’s surprise turned to astonishment. Angel was speaking so plainly, in such a toneless cascade of words, that he sounded like a veteran telling war stories. Rather than attempt further comprehension of his Mohra story or press him with another question, she sat silently, waiting for him to choose to speak again.

“Kate told me you had my diary. I asked her what she wanted me to do about it, and she said I should talk to you. Now Connor. Even Nina told me I had ‘unfinished business’ with you.” He gazed at her with weary eyes. “I always envied you, having a family. Now I wonder how you put up with them. When people care about you, nothing is ever enough. I let go of everything I could - you, Wolfram & Hart, my connections to the Powers That Be, the Shanshu - but I’m still not free. I can’t even work myself to death without someone having something to say about it.”

Buffy’s voice was hoarse. “Is that what you want?”

Angel responded with a slight shrug. “What else is there?”

“Kate, apparently. Connor. Nina.”

“Kate lives three blocks away from me and I haven’t seen her in months. Connor’s better off without me, you saw his letter. Nina broke up with me back in Cleveland.”

“Oh.” It had been a long time since Angel left Cleveland, Buffy knew, and she felt ashamed to have such outdated information. “I’m sorry. Was it bad?”

He shook his head emphatically. “No. She’s happier without me too.”

“Faith,” said Buffy in sudden triumph. On some level she knew it was absurd to be trying to come up with people aside from herself who cared about Angel, but she couldn’t let him go on in such despair. “Faith is still there for you.”

Angel nodded. “Always. But right now she’s there for the Cleveland Hellmouth and Nina’s new pack. And she’s dating Spike.”

Buffy let out a long breath that turned into a shuddering laugh. “We really do have substantial issues, don’t we?”

“We do,” he agreed, making no mirthful sound of his own. “You know Wesley and Gunn are dead?”

There was no implication of accusation in his tone, but Buffy wanted to shrink into herself until she disappeared. She had tried to mourn Wesley and felt like her history with him left her with no solid basis for it, so she had put it off like so many other demands of her personal life. Only now did she comprehend that Wesley was a true human soul, a good man killed prematurely in battle, and that she had been trying to file his existence away in her brain. “I knew about Wesley. Who was Gunn?”

“Someone who was there for me.” Two tears, hot and angry, emerged from Buffy’s eyes. “Angel, I would have come! I would have fought with you, died with you, if you had just told me what you were doing! I was here with dozens of Slayers the day after I heard the first thing about the battle. We could have been here sooner, we - maybe we could have saved your friends!”

“Yeah. Great. You know who else is dead? Fred. Kindest, most innocent person I’ve ever known. She was in trouble and I called Giles to ask you for help. He said you wouldn’t give it. She was evicted from her own body by a hellgod and that’s the last time I asked your people for anything.”

The fragment of her mind that wasn’t drowning in guilt and swearing revenge on Giles was engaged in something far more sinister: finding a way to get the higher ground back. It delivered quickly. “Then why did you try to find me in Rome?”

A quick flicker of his eyelids showed that she had managed to take him by surprise. “I heard you were involved with The Immortal. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“So you talked to Andrew and decided I was hunky-dory and left without seeing me?”

This time he did laugh, though it was without humor. “Of course not. I knew you weren’t there as soon as I set foot in that apartment.”

“What? But Willow did this incredibly gross spell that she said would make the place smell like me.”

“Yeah. But Andrew said Dawn was living there too, and there wasn’t any scent of her. Seemed like the most logical answer was that the whole thing was a set-up, so I followed your fake trail with Spike to make sure.”

Buffy was dumbfounded. “You mean Spike knew, too?”

Angel made a noncommittal motion. “For all I know, he did, but if so he was a lot more subtle about it than you’d expect. I didn’t want to give it away if he was really buying it, so I tried testing him - told someone we were looking for a blonde woman with blue eyes. He didn’t correct me. Maybe he just never noticed the color of your eyes, though.”

It was a lot to consider, but the pieces seemed to fit together well enough. Buffy selected her next question carefully. “Did you think I was going to choose Spike over you?”

He raised his eyebrows, almost seeming amused. “No. Were you?”

“No! I wasn’t even thinking about choosing between the two of you. That’s your thing.”

Angel glared. “Spike’s thing.”

It was time to bring out the big guns. Buffy hadn’t forgotten the deep sorrow and remorse she had felt when he talked about his dead friends, but he needed to face this, too. “Angel, Spike told me what you said that day. That you told me to kill you at Acathla, for instance. Funny, I remember it differently.”

“I…”

“Killing you ruined my life. I won’t rephrase that. Even after you came back, I was never the same again. Every day since it happened, I’ve had to be the person who sent my lover to Hell while he stared at me wondering why I had betrayed him. The only thing that ever made it even a little bit better was explaining it to you and knowing that you finally understood why I had to do it and how terrible it was to make that choice on my own.” She stood up again and turned back to the view. “And now I find out that you don’t even respect me enough to tell the truth about it.”

She refused to look at him and see how he was taking this particular nugget of blame, but his sigh sounded genuinely remorseful, and his words came haltingly. “That day, when I -”

On impulse she decided it was a good opportunity to interrupt. “Is this going to be an in-depth analysis of what you actually meant to say, or is it an apology?”

“I’m sorry.” Those words came much more easily, perhaps accelerated with the relief of having the correct response spelled out for him. “I shouldn’t have demeaned you like that. Spike brings out the worst in me.”

He could have done a lot better with the apology than to transfer the mishap to Spike so swiftly, but at the moment all Buffy could think about was how entirely factually wrong was that statement. She laughed bitterly. “Unless he gave you a moment of perfect happiness and transformed you into a ruthless killer, I think that distinction is still mine.”

There was a long pause, and Buffy sensed that Angel’s evident shame was about more than his quarrel with Spike. She tried to introduce some compassion into her voice when she continued, “...Except it isn't, is it?”

“What did you hear?” he asked reluctantly.

“Cordelia. It’s okay. I know how much you cared about her.”

“It’s not okay. Why would you say that? Do you think it would change anything for you and me if I loved another woman? If that woman were dead? I’m still not free. Not from her, not from you.” He shook his head. “Anyway, Cordy didn’t give me perfect happiness. Dark magic did.”

Buffy, feeling unaccountably frightened, was nevertheless compelled to inquire. “What do you mean?”

“We intentionally brought forth Angelus by casting a spell on me. I was in a dream that was meant to put me in a euphoric state and make it believable enough that I would lose my soul. Every detail was produced by my own subconscious mind to convince me that I was happy. I did have sex with Cordy. But it wasn’t real.”

The fear was turning to nausea. “Just because it happened in your head doesn’t mean the happiness wasn’t real. Your mind gave you what you wanted, didn’t it?”

“You’re not listening. I got what I wanted because I invented something to want. I took all the pain out of all the good things in my life so they were simple and accessible and false. I turned my friends into a supportive, effective team of heroes. I turned the Beast into a puzzle we could solve by working together. I turned Connor into - forget that, there’s too much to explain about him. But do you see? Loving Cordy would have been such a good move. She was everything a man could ask for, and we had been through enough already that I would never have to doubt our commitment to each other. We weren’t passionate, but so what? That just meant I would never be truly happy and my soul was safe.”

He stopped talking for a moment, as if to breathe, but he didn’t seem to need to collect his thoughts. Buffy felt that he was no longer talking to her but telling this story as a means of purging it from his directory of sins, and in a way, she preferred that. Maybe she could help him come a little closer to internal peace after all.

“There was one thing Cordy didn’t have,” Angel continued. “She couldn’t handle my past. Have you ever wondered why we use ‘Angelus’ now to refer to me when I’m soulless? Cordelia started that. She needed to separate me from what I used to be, so she put the difference in the names. It didn’t matter - it’s convenient, and I liked the way it felt to be someone else. I liked it that she wanted me to feel that. But when she found out that she was wrong, that Angelus wasn’t just my evil twin taking over my body, whatever romantic feelings she’d had for me just dried up. It was hard. By that time I wanted her love, and it looked like I was losing her friendship, too.”

Buffy didn’t say what she could have: that the truth of ‘Angelus’ had never had an effect on her own love for Angel. She had a feeling that the topic had come up in the first place because he already knew.

Angel was still going. “In my dream, Cordy said the horrible things I had done didn’t matter anymore, and she wanted to be with me. I turned her into the perfect woman. A mannequin. She was a genuine, precious human being, but I had to twist her beyond recognition to make someone who could stand me.” He stared down at the table. “But I twisted myself more than anyone. I was the lonely, noble, self-sacrificing champion I always wanted to be. I had passion where I wanted it, and purpose, and confidence. I knew I would reach my redemption someday, and that I would be content until it happened. And I had never met you.”

Buffy could have been crushed between his fingertips right then. “In your perfect world, I don’t even exist?”

“In my perfect world, I didn’t exist.”

“Angel.” She sat down in the other chair and reached for his hands, lying limp on the table. He didn’t resist, but he didn’t look at her either, or return the pressure when she squeezed his hands with both of hers. “I’ve been wrong about you. I’m sorry. When did it get so bad?”

“You’re worried now. You shouldn’t be.” He reinforced the words with a softer tone and his eyes raised to meet hers, but she didn’t forget that he was a master performer. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to convince her that he was fine when he was assuredly not. “I won’t go bad again and I won’t hurt myself.”

“Forget that. Just talk to me about it. I’m here now. I can help.”

“Not like this.”

“Then how?”

Angel pushed back his chair, removing his chilly hands from her warm ones without jerking them away. He stood up and looked out at the view, as she had. “Connor’s helping me the most. He has a good life, and he knows it. You could do that.”

“Being Buffy?” Buffy asked dryly.

Angel didn’t get the reference, of course. “Yes. Didn’t I say something like that in the diary?”

She nodded and tried talking around the lump in her throat. “I was afraid that was obsolete.”

“Did you keep it because you didn’t want me to know you had it? Or because you wanted it?”

“Good question,” said Buffy, and it really was. She had cringed at the thought of confronting Angel, showing him the evidence that she had pried into his past, having the very conversation they were having now, but she had also treasured the little book for its own sake. She realized that the decent thing to do now was return it to its owner, and her heart fell. The diary had troubled her, but not as much as it had comforted her. “I don’t suppose this is a case of finders keepers?”

“If you do want it, it’s not obsolete.”

“I think that’s the most hopeful thing you’ve said all night.” She looked around. The view hadn’t changed, but then, there weren’t any stars to move across the LA sky. “How long have we been here, anyway?”

“‘A moment of indeterminate time’,” said Angel as if quoting something. “Buffy, everything around me falls apart. I wasn’t just trying to keep you safe, not this time. I was trying to keep you happy. If I’ve learned anything over the past few years it’s that changing my approach to relationships is no use. I can have friends, good friends, but if I’m central to someone’s life, that life is going to be worse for it, and that’s not worth whatever benefit I get. I saw a chance to let you have the life you ought to, and I took it, but it had to be drastic this time. No more complications.”

Buffy hugged herself, already feeling lonesome again. “But it doesn’t make me happy to think you don’t care about me anymore.”

“Thought you were too smart for that.”

She didn’t rise to the bait. Lonesome was better than enraged or sobbing, but she still wasn’t ready to start joking with him. “I gave you a lot of reasons to have a change of heart.”

“Like what?” he inquired.

“I thought you were disgusted with me. Because you found out I…” She steeled herself. “...Slept with Spike.”

The confession, if that’s what it was, met with surprise, though the source of the surprise was hard to identify. Angel looked over his shoulder at her for a long moment, then completed the turn and sat back down in his chair. Buffy wished that he would take her hands as she had taken his, but it was enough that he left them open and pointed toward her. “Is that it? Buffy, I’ve slept with Spike. You never disgust me.”

Buffy blinked twice, considered some more, and blinked again.

“Okay,” said Angel, “looks like I should have couched that in some kind of metaphor.”

“No, it’s okay, just...I didn’t even know you were bisexual.”

“I’m not.” His mouth twisted in frustration. “I’m a vampire. I can’t really explain it any other way. I prefer women because I was straight when I was human, but when you have no soul and no biological functions, sex is just a game.” He gave her a look that was somehow both shrewd and kind. “What was it for you?”

She met the look with the unspoken comprehension that she had missed sharing with him so much. “Valium.”

At that, he took her hands after all. They sat for a moment of indeterminate time, looking over each other’s faces and letting their throats recover. “Are you seeing anyone now?” Angel ventured at length.

“No.”

“You should.”

Buffy smiled, which came as a surprise to her. “No, I shouldn’t.” She stopped his impending repetition with a gesture. “I don’t want to go on dates and roll in the hay and evaluate the potential for permanence in a variety of suitors right now, Angel. Let me rest.”

“You’re okay on your own?”

“Am I on my own?”

His eyebrows turned quizzical. “I still can’t -” he started, then made a comical whole-body shrug which Buffy somehow divined was meant to represent his sexual restrictions as a token of his overall inability to be her lover.

She chose to get it wrong anyway. “You still can’t conceive of a woman leading a fulfilling life without a good man to lean on?”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“You always mean that. We decide we can’t be together, and immediately you’re replacing yourself with some hypothetical worthy piece of manflesh, except that nobody is ever worthy, so all you can see is the hole in my life where a husband should be. Plenty of single women get by in this world with their careers to give them purpose, and I have more than that. I have a calling.”

Angel ruminated briefly, then said, “So do I. But I still wanted to have a girlfriend. And when I got one, I still kept noticing that she wasn’t you. Maybe I’m wrong about what you want, but I don’t think it’s because I’m just being sexist.”

“I didn’t like you having a girlfriend,” Buffy admitted. “I didn’t find much to complain about when you were alone and pining for me, though, which now that I think about it is kind of perverse.”

“It’s not. I’d rather be alone and pining for you.”

“That’s what I thought. But as far as I understood our relationship and <i>please</i> remember that I was a doltish teenager when it began, your world revolved around me. You wanted me to have everything, at whatever cost to yourself, and the best thing I could do for you in return was spoil myself rotten and disregard all of your own needs. And that’s pretty much how it’s all played out since then, isn’t it?”

“So where’s the problem?”

Buffy tapped a restive finger on the table. “Spike wanted me to use him. So I did. Please allow me to not go into detail about all the ways that went wrong.”

Angel’s eyes caught the dim light of a minor epiphany. “You’re better than that, aren’t you? I’ve been trying to get you to behave selfishly, and it’s against your nature.”

“Yes. I think we’re onto something.”

“Ordinary couples stay together because it’s good for both of them. They don’t have to sacrifice the happiness of one for the sake of the other.”

Buffy smiled again, finding a better kind of humor, tinged with futility instead of sarcasm. “Need I remind you that we’re not an ordinary couple?”

Far below them and off in the distance, an emergency vehicle’s siren howled as it surged through the dark streets, finding someone to rescue or punish.

“Buffy, what are we going to do?”

 

 

Connor’s pocketknife tore through the brown paper and revealed a generously sized cardboard box. He hadn’t recognized the handwriting that had written his name and address on the outside, but the return address was LA and he didn’t think that anyone he knew there was likely to mail him a bomb.

Inside the box, some surprisingly acceptable articles of new clothing, in his size, were nestled around a large bag of cookies. This he instantly lifted to his face and inhaled; yes, they were definitely home-baked. There was also a package of Oreos, perhaps to emphasize the point or perhaps because the sender hadn’t been sure if he would like chocolate chip. Connor chuckled. Only one person in his life would allow for that kind of pickiness over free baked goods.

When he got to the bottom of the box, though, the small piece of notepaper there showed the evidence of more than one person. You have created substantial issues, Angel had written, and below that, in a woman’s writing that matched the address on the package, Both of us are dealing with them at the same time. The duality was repeated below in the two signatures: Buffy and Angel.

 



IWRY HOMEPAGE :: 2013 FICTION LIST



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