The Days of Wine and Roses
Summary: In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.
Notes: Back-up for the Happy Endings Ficathon.
Written for stars91 per her requests.
The Days of Wine and Roses
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses;
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
- Ernest Dowson
She wakes every morning anew, tangled in soft linen sheets damp only with sweat from the morning sun through her window. Softness suffused with the scent of her own soap and perfume, and the scent that is uniquely her—never with the lingering rancor of sour dreams.
Sometimes she goes to school, making notes on loose-leaf paper and highlighting sentences in shades of yellow and orange. Teachers lecture and she mostly listens, moving on in a shuffle of papers and the ever-present scent of wooden pencils.
Other days, she hangs with the new Watcher crowd, telling them stories and chuckling at their expressions. There are new books being written, and the writers are especially interested in her first hand knowledge about certain vampires. In a battered, spiral bound notebook that spurts curling waves of ragged paper, she’s written the beginnings of her own book. It’ll never see the light of day, but sometimes it comforts her to write in it.
Some days, she goes shopping. She tries on pretty dresses and blouses hanging in a myriad of colors and cuts behind the gloss of shiny windows. Shop girls ooh and ahh over her choices, telling her how flattering the colors are, or wrinkling their noses at the fit, dissenting with a single shake of their head.
When there’s nothing else to do, she goes into town and sits at the coffee shop, drinking espresso and watching the people go by on their way to wherever it is that they go. Armanno never lets her cup run dry, and the people never stop thronging, surging and rushing by, the endings of their stories never known.
In the evening, sometimes she curls up in front of the TV. She’ll prop up her feet and pull out an old bottle of bubble-gum pink polish and paint each toenail to perfection, slow and easy, one smooth stroke at a time. When she’s finished, she’ll prop her feet up on the coffee table and wiggle her toes, alternately admiring their glorious pinkness and trying to follow Conan O’Brien.
Sometimes, she’ll cook. She’s moved on from pasta dishes and lasagna to pâté and soufflé, and though it lacks the taste of her mom’s home cooking, she does a fair enough job of it. Some nights, she even bakes cookies and makes tea, and nostalgic and thinking of Giles, she stretches out on her bed with her books and nibbles as she studies.
Other nights Dawn and Spike will call and harass her to go out, and sometimes she even does. Cute boys streaked in spinning rainbow light, pulse of the music thumping in her chest as she spins with them. Some nights, she’ll even bring one back to her apartment, salty with sweat and straining with desire as they tattoo their own rhythm against her sheets.
Every now and then, she even goes patrolling--with about a half dozen or so of her new Slayer pals. No one goes alone anymore. The monsters come, the monsters are outmatched; the monsters die. There hasn’t been a decent apocalypse since her last days in Sunnydale.
Some nights, she’s in bed by 10pm.
It’s the life she always wanted.
And through it all, she finds her gaze drawn toward the window of whatever room she happens to be in, her eyes set on a distant point in the horizon, heart longing for something she cannot put a name to.
It’s different, this feeling. It’s not the gnawing, soul-devouring emptiness of the burden of single Slayerdom. It's elusive, this thing. So elusive that she’s not even sure, sometimes, if it actually exists... but she feels it. Feels it deeper than bones. Hollowed out and smooth around the edges, but empty, just the same.
“What is it, Giles?” she asks, knowing that if anyone will know the answer, it’ll be him.
“I believe you’re suffering from the affliction known as ‘living’,” he replies, and try as she might throughout the years, she can never fit as much stuffy, dry, sarcastic British accent into the statement as he does in that moment.
Days pass in a haze, a ceaseless whispering like white noise.
“We worry about you, Buffy.” Dawn’s green eyes are huge, luminous with sympathy.
The thought strikes her as ludicrous. Dawn and Spike. Dawn and Spike. Together. She’s still trying to wrap her brain around that one, a whole year later. And now, Dawn and Spike, worrying about her? She laughs.
“I’m serious,” Dawn goes on, her brows furrowing together. “It’s been three years since you filled the world with Slayers. Almost six since you had anything like a serious relationship.”
“I’m living vicariously through your happiness,” she says, deadpan, and the line between Dawn’s brows grows deeper. There’s hurt there, old and new, and Buffy feels it skitter through the corridors of her heart.
“Are you ever gonna let it go, Buffy?” Dawn asks, her voice low, carefully tender, moderated tones meant to dissuade and pull apart. Buffy bristles at the sound. She doesn’t know what’s coming, but she knows she’s not going to like it. And she’s certainly not going to encourage her sister by asking what she means.
“Dawn, I’m fine.”
“You’re not.” Dawn shakes her head, shiny chestnut waves of hair dancing over her shoulders. “You haven’t been for years. Ever since Angel—“
She sighs. “Angel has nothing to do with my happiness.”
“I decided a long time ago that if there was such a thing as a happy ending, Angel wasn’t part of it.”
Dawn’s brows rise just a fraction of an inch. “Did you?”
“Or did he?”
Deadly hands that have slain the most formidable adversaries the earth has ever known scrub at pots and pans with decidedly lackluster interest.
Green-gray eyes stare out the window in the fading light of day, following along the rooftops of the city to where they vanish against the sky.
Suffering from the affliction known as living, she thinks with a mental harrumph. Like Giles has the market cornered on an exciting life.
I think that’s rather the point.
She breathes. She shops. She sneezes. She goes to school. She goes out. Sometimes.
That’s living, right? What life is all about.
Water runs from the faucet, splashing over hands stilled by the question. Bubbles slide over skin, swirling away down the drain, and she watches them without really seeing.
He’s just as beautiful as the first time she saw him. His face a little fuller, perhaps, his eyes a little wiser, but not a moment older than the first time she laid eyes upon him all those years ago. All those years ago, when her head and heart had been on fire with hopes and dreams of the future, when all she’d wanted was a normal life.
“Do you remember what I was like?”
“You were beautiful. Strong. Brave. Noble. Sad.”
“Sad...” she echoes, remembering.
“You had to make a lot of hard choices. You gave up so much.”
“For so long, I hated it. It wasn’t fair. I kept thinking about all the things I should be doing, about the life I couldn’t have...” she shakes her head, eyes wide with wonder and sadness. “And now I have it.”
“Why do I get the feeling that’s... bad?” he asks, edging forward on the couch to look at her.
She turns to him, feeling that old fire in her chest. “I’m alive, Angel. I’m gonna live. No more one girl in all the world, no more dying young and leaving a fashionable corpse. I might even make it to 80, surrounded by fat grandnieces and nephews listening to worn out stories about my glory days that they’ll never believe—crazy old grandma Buffy, thinks vampires are hiding in the flower pots again.”
He tilts his head at her, his mouth askew with that sensuous, quirky grin of his.
“And okay, maybe not such a pretty picture I’m painting here, but Angel, I’m ALIVE. I’m gonna live.” She reaches out, fingers trembling as they touch his skin. Her hands feel awkward, like old dancers performing moves they haven’t practiced in years, and yet they know the moves, the terrain of his face, the angular line of his jaw as she tilts his face down toward hers, breathing soft upon his lips.
“And I want to start.” Heartbeat. Breathe in. Breathe out. “Right now.”
Her lover’s eyes, the same deep shade of brown that gazed on her with such tenderness and sorrow so many years ago.
“Nothing’s different.” His eyes trail slowly from hers, sadness in their wake.
“Everything’s different,” she whispers, fire burning bright in her chest. “Me. You. The world.”
“The curse isn’t.”
Her laugh is short, brittle glass edged in diamonds. “You’ve had sex since you were with me, Angel. Tell me you haven’t.” And not a word from him now, not even a breath. “You have a son. Biology wasn’t my best subject, but even I got that part.”
“Buffy...” his voice is cracked, strained with emotion, and she feels her heart slip another notch, gathering dread, coiling in her belly. “When I... when I left you in Sunnydale, I did it because I wanted you to have a normal life. Because I wanted you to have all the things I can’t give you. To be with someone who could take you into the light,” he says, looking at her at last. His eyes are dark brown windows to empty rooms, halls of history that reflect their pain. “Someone who could give you children, grow old with you.” No doorways there, no light to chase shadows of blame.
She can smell him, the metallic undertone of aftershave, the scent of his skin beneath. Could reach out and touch him, if she dared. How can he be so close and so far away all at once?
“Angel...” her voice quivers on the edge of tears as she catches his face between her hands. “I live that life every. Single. Day. And every day, I die a little more.”
He turns his face away, hiding his eyes from hers, and she pulls him back, pressing her forehead to his, closing her eyes as she breathes. “Nothing. Is going to stop that. Nothing can. And you can play your King of Pain routine, and we can do the same old song and dance and avoid this forever... but I’m still going to live, and die. And I want it to be with you.”
He’s like winter in July, melting snow through her hands. Hot tears against cold skin, and his face is stone, smooth curves and angular planes of lifeless marble, hard and unmoved. The words are harsh, torn from a ragged heart that can barely speak. But that doesn’t shield her from the blow they deliver.
“Buffy. We can’t risk it.”
“So it’ll be hard,” she explodes, releasing him with sudden anger. “We’ll have to think about it, have to work at it. How’s that any different than what we’ve done every day for the last decade of our lives?” Her voice rises in pitch, her body moving upward toward him in time. “God, Angel. All this time, and you’re still afraid to live?”
He recoils as if she’d slapped him, and for a moment, she feels sorry. But she isn’t. Not really. Not beyond the surface, knee-jerk reaction to causing him pain.
He’s so complete in his sorrow, face turned away and downward, still glittering with tears. She hates him for it. Hates that even now this is all he thinks he can give her.
“Is this it?” she asks, surging to her feet. “Is this what you think you deserve from me? My anger? My pity? Is that all you’re worthy of?” She rolls her eyes and wipes viciously at her face, snorting bitter laughter. “God. Two-hundred forty-plus years and come to find out, I’m more mature than you are. Go figure.”
“You live as long as I have, you build up a lot more issues.” The words are quiet, delivered with complete and utter sincerity.
There is a pregnant pause, the very air charged with electricity arcing between them.
And then they both burst into laughter.
There is no kiss. No turning point upon which the world begins to spin in a new direction. His decision was made years ago, and even now, even with her so close, her words ringing in his ears, he is too afraid to listen, too afraid to try.
She understands. That’s the bitch of it, actually. It would be easier if she could hate him, shut him out. Fill that hole inside her with resentment and blackened anger.
But goodbyes come with restrained tenderness, and an unspoken understanding.
Summer gives way to fall, leaves the shade of crimson and gold slowly descending into brown. There are fresh apples in the market every day, and every day she stops in to see Guido with a bright smile and a brief inquiry about the health of his family, and leaves with the coarse texture of apple in her mouth, sweet-sour juice prickling on her tongue.
The new Watchers have a sprawling expanse of land, and some of them even have horses. A single sentence of expressed interest and she has her own horse, tall and proud, dappled reddish-brown and white, chestnut patches the same hue as Dawn’s hair.
The tree branches grow lean and bare as she rides, hard and fast like the wind, always toward some destination never quite reached.
Snow. It’s winter in Rome, and there’s snow on the ground.
She’s never seen it like this, the vineyards in the distance painted with cascading light, glistening and still. Thin tree trunks sharp black caught against white, their graceful branches arcing upward into the pale night sky, limned in a thousand tiny glittering points of light. Snowflakes swirl through the air, small and weightless, and she feels them touch her skin, shocking and icy cold for an instant before they begin to melt.
Her horse whickers gently, toeing at the white stuff with a hesitant hoof and a wondering eye. She wonders if he’s ever seen snow before.
I’m not much on the stuff, myself, big guy, she thinks with a wry smile.
It’s beautiful. The vast, open vineyards painted in nature’s own version of pointillism. The night air, both sharp and still, fills her with a sense of being alone in the world. And that feeling--once hated, once defied—feels strangely like coming home. It appeals to the Slayer in her heart, the lone hunter in her that will always exist. And she has a choice now, doesn’t she? She can enjoy feeling lonely; embrace it with a sense of nostalgia and affection she could never have afforded it before. She’s no longer “she alone”. No, “She alone will stand against the vampires and demons” has been fatally interrupted due to technical difficulties. We now return you “She and an army of Slayers will raze the vampires and demons to the ground,” already in progress, thank you very much.
And still, even cloaked beneath the silent mantle of snow, warm and snug within her clothes and content within her skin, there’s something missing. There’s a hole in her heart, cut in the shape of a man. She can see it now, trace the lines of its contours, jagged edges healed smooth around the hollow. An old wound, and like the memory of a long lost friend, it ebbs and flows with soothing comfort and empty ache. Somehow, she had thought with understanding would come resolution. Every enemy she has ever faced had become a simple challenge to resolve once its breadth and depth was known. Not this. Enemies are buried and forgotten, but battle scars are carried to the grave.
Snow. It’s winter in Rome, and there is snow on the ground. It’s a rare gift. A miracle, one might say. It should summon a smile to her lips, should bubble laughter in her breast. Should urge her to mount her horse and race through the white open fields, cavorting like a child. But she’s a Sunnydale girl, tried and true, and she’s seen miracle snow before, and the shadows of memory are too large upon her to see the light.
She doesn’t need him. She knows that now, maybe for the very first time in her life. She loves him, she wants him, but she doesn’t need him.
Are you ever gonna let it go, Buffy?
She bends to the ground, scoops up a handful of snow, letting it sift through her fingers.
We all feel it, Buffy. The sun rises, the sun sets, and with each day, something inside us dies a little more. We wonder about our choices, about paths not taken, we question the wisdom of the lives we lead.
So how do you know when it’s right?
I don’t think we ever do. I think we do the best we can. Life is ebb and flow. Some days, I’ve been lucky enough to help save the world. But most days I sit in my office and read, watch the telly, eat too many pastries.
Is that enough?
There are no easy answers to the questions you’re asking, Buffy.
Then give me some hard ones.
Very well. The truth is; you get to decide. Only you.
The barn door is open, yellow light spilling out across the snow-covered ground. Astride her horse, she slowly walks the last few feet, watching snow give way to beaten dirt and strands of hay.
Her last conversation with Giles still echoing in her mind, she doesn’t notice anything until her horse stops short, backing up a few sudden steps.
She leaps from the saddle, flying into his open arms, burying her face deep in the curve of his throat.
And incredibly, he laughs, wrapping his arms around her and folding her close. “I got to thinking, and I figure if Faith and Lindsey can make it...”
“Or Spike and Dawn,” she murmurs, smiling into his shoulder as she hugs him tight.
“Don’t remind me,” he says, stroking her hair.
His coat is velvet and warm and she can feel his muscles move, hard and sleek beneath as he touches her, and oh, God, he feels so good. She swallows hard against the lump in her throat, breathes deep, and draws back to meet his eyes.
“I don’t need you.”
He blinks, studying her for a long moment in confusion. “Not exactly the entreaty I was looking for.”
“I know.” One corner of her mouth turns up in a sad, lopsided smile. “But I want you to know, you’re not the only one making a decision this time. It’s my decision, too.”
He nods once, takes a slow, deep breath. “So...your decision is yes, right?”
“Yes.” The answer is breathlessly given, filled with joy. “Yes, yes, always yes,” she whispers.
His mouth, scant inches from hers, curves in a slow grin.
She grins back and impulsively pushes up from the ground, lifts herself up and kisses him until they’re both laughing so hard they can’t speak.
“This is just the beginning,” she says, swinging up into the saddle of her horse.
“It won’t be easy.”
She gathers the reins in her hands and smiles, quick and hard. “Something is?”
He slides up behind her, puts his arms around her waist and pulls her close.
“You’ll get older. I won’t.”
She turns her face toward his and smiles. “I don’t have to live forever, Angel. I just have to live.”
And with that, she cracks the reins, laughter trailing behind as their horse races away across the field, its hooves turning up small, frothy waves of white.
Looking back, she always feels her life began at exactly that moment, the feeling of joy forever after mingled with the faint scent of hay and the feel of velvet. No more empty hours, always wondering, waiting for life to begin.
And ever after, their life, their love, is a beacon of hope within the darkness, a force of will against eternity, and the moments and memories they steal away are treasures kept forever. She lives by the rhythms of her heart, with her lover in her arms and hope in her hands. There are no happy endings, nor beginnings. Only life itself, all the moments in between.
For even the candle that burns brightest must eventually burn out, and it is only what is remembered then that matters.
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