A few weeks in Britain cured Buffy of her desire to relax, take it easy, live a little. She could never get the hang of calling fries, chips and chips, crisps. She couldn’t figure out the money, holding her hand out to the sales clerk and trusting that they’d only take what was necessary. Riding on the top of a double-decker bus made her positively nauseous and the appeal of peering down into the net-curtained windows of the houses she passed soon lost its appeal. And if she saw one more pot of tea or was offered one more Ploughman’s Lunch in a local pub she was going to scream.
Giles’ house was tilted awkwardly to one side, with a crooked garden out back over-run with foxglove and climbing roses. The lack of central heating wasn’t a problem at this time of year, the heat was stifling; but the lack of air conditioning meant that after her bath each morning (no shower made for a very unhappy ex-Slayer) Buffy was sweating and irritable. And that was even before she sat down to her breakfast of cold toast, sickly-sweet orange marmalade and, yes, tea.
"Sleep well?" Giles said with customary good-humour.
Buffy slid into the rattan chair in the tiny sunroom that doubled as a breakfast nook. "Great."
"Ahh," he said, setting the toast rack and jar of marmalade in front of her.
"Do you people not eat anything but toast and tea?" she said, grumpily.
"I can take you out for a proper fry-up if you like," Giles said, joining her at the table with the obligatory pot of the brew. "Fried eggs and tomatoes, bangers and beans. It’s a feast for your arteries, really."
"Sausage," Giles said, pouring.
Buffy reached for a piece of toast and bit into it.
"Oh, I almost forgot. This came in the post."
Buffy set her toast on the edge of her plate and reached out to take the postcard Giles held out. The picture depicted a white, sandy beach; a lone palm tree looked out over azure water. She smiled and flipped the card over, looking for a signature before she read the scribbled note.
"Willow," she said, looking up at Giles. He nodded.
"Dear Buffy," she read out loud. "I’m not going to say ‘having a ball, wish you were here,’ because that’s so cliché. (But, it’s true.) Mauritius is, well, other-worldly, but I mean that in a good way. I think I’m even developing a taste for rum. Oh dear. Love you, Willow. PS In case you wondered, Kennedy didn’t stay."
"I’m not surprised," Giles said.
"You’re not surprised about what? That she likes rum?"
"That Kennedy didn’t stay. I think their…" he paused, unsure of what to call Willow’s relationship with the younger, abrasive potential Slayer. "I think their relationship was a sort of rebound thing for Willow after…"
"Yes, well," Giles said, sipping at his tea.
"Death makes people do the wacky, I guess."
Giles set his cup back into his saucer and leaned forward. "Yes, speaking of that…"
Buffy looked up at her former Watcher, horrified. "Don’t," she cautioned.
"Sooner or later," Giles said, carefully, "we’ll have to talk about it."
It had been only three weeks since the battle with the First Evil, since Sunnydale had been sucked into the earth, taking with it the good and the bad. Good: Anya’s and her mother’s bodies and the physical reminders of Buffy’s youth and thousands of memories. Spike. Bad: Well, the First, mainly.
And it did seem as though the Hellmouth was closed for good.
For the first time ever, Buffy was looking out into the future and actually seeing, well, the future. Clear sailing. Endless possibilities. They’d stood, those who had survived, looking out at the massive hole that had once represented the best and the worst of their lives and no one cried.
They’d stood for a long moment, reflecting, the way they had the day they’d blown up Sunnydale High. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Then they’d boarded the yellow school bus and high-tailed it out of there.
The Hyperion was dark when they’d arrived, tired, dirty, ravenous and giddy from their victory.
"Are you sure?" Giles had whispered to Buffy as he pulled up in front of the hotel.
Buffy had nodded. As sure as she ever was about putting herself within breathing distance of Angel.
"It’s just a place to sleep, Giles. Look at it; it’s huge. We can regroup and everyone can decide what they want to do."
"Yes, I suppose it makes sense. Will he be expecting us?"
Buffy peered through the front gates and was sure she saw the whites of Angel’s eyes staring back.
And, he was. They all were. They’d flung open windows to air out rooms, filled the industrial-sized fridge with fruit and sandwich meat and sodas, and they’d waited for what they knew would happen: the pilgrimage of whomever had survived the battle. They waited in the dark, whispering quietly and sipping black coffee. Lorne swirled the ice in his Seabreeze and let the various feelings which emanated from each person wash over him. Wesley: nervous tension. Fred: careful hope. Gunn: battle readiness. Angel: longing. (Although Lorne couldn’t be certain what he was longing for.)
"They’re here," Angel had said suddenly, standing and moving to the front door. "Wait," he said before pushing out through the glass doors and standing in the shadowy garden outside. From his half-hidden position Angel had watched the dusty bus croak to a stop at the curb and he closed his eyes. Please. Please. Please, he’d begged as he waited for the door to crank open.
A bunch of girls he didn’t know filed off first. These must be the Potentials. Then, Xander wearing a dashing eye patch, followed by a slender and cautious looking young man. Faith, bearing the weight of a huge black man who was obviously hurt, but trying not to show it. Willow, smiling; the glare of her white teeth laughing back at Giles and Dawn as they exited. If Willow was smiling that was good, wasn’t it? Then, a breathless moment (figuratively, of course) and there she was.
It took Angel a moment to register that Spike was not with her and he took another moment to consider what that might mean. But only a moment; he couldn’t afford to waste any time. He needed to lay his hands on her and to know that she was okay. He stepped out into the light of a street-lamp and waited.
One by one, they filed past him. The Potentials smiled wearily, but didn’t seem to know who he was. Xander nodded curtly. Dawn stopped to hug him, her grip tighter than he would have thought possible. Faith whispered, "Five by five," as she hitched her cargo further up her hip. Willow stopped and squeezed his hand. Giles slowed, but said nothing and then she was there, a finger’s length away from him, smiling a smile that reminded Angel of life itself and he knew, in that instant, that she wasn’t staying.
Hours later, after the hotel’s hot water tank had been emptied and the remains of the impromptu feast had been cleared and the last of the Potentials had had their chance to tell the story of the battle in their own words, the hotel and its inhabitants slept.
He found her, sitting on the ledge of the window in her room; the room that adjoined his. "Buffy?"
"Hi," she said softly, twisting her head towards where he stood awkwardly in the door. "Come in."
He stepped forward and shut the door behind him. "You okay?"
She turned back towards the approaching dawn. "I’m okay."
He moved to stand beside her. She’d showered and her skin smelled of cheap soap and sunlight. She’d caught her hair up in a messy knot and was wearing one of his tee-shirts.
"I bet everyone sleeps the day away," she said. "They’ve got to be exhausted."
"But you’re not?"
"My body’s willing, but my mind isn’t, I guess," she replied.
Angel joined her on the window ledge.
"Do you want to talk about…"
Buffy shot him a look. "No," she said sharply before softening her tone to add, "thanks."
"I don’t mind," Angel said.
"Do you think you’d sleep if I lie down with you?" he asked.
"Maybe," Buffy said.
"Do you want to try?"
Buffy slid off the sill and headed for the bed, pulling back the sheets and blanket and slipping between them. She waited, watching Angel reconsider his offer before he headed across the room to join her.
He sat on the bed and bent over to remove his boots before lying beside her, careful not to touch her. Every inch of his skin felt stretched too tightly over muscle and bone. He turned his head to see that Buffy was watching him cautiously.
"Weird," he agreed.
They smiled at each other.
"Try to sleep, Buffy," Angel said, turning his face away from hers and staring up at the ceiling. "You deserve it."
Hours later, when Buffy woke up, Angel was gone. She stretched languidly in the sheets and felt, for the first time in many months, as though she’d actually rested. Someone had pulled open the drapes and the late morning sunlight spilled into the room and across the blankets twisted at her feet.
Buffy rolled over and looked out into the day; a day that stretched in front of her without the promise of death or chaos or strategic planning. She slid her fingers into the tangled mess of her hair and scratched her scalp.
A knock at the door. Reaching down for the sheet and pulling it up over her bare legs she called, "Come in."
It was Willow carrying a tray laden with something that smelled delicious. "Mmmm, breakfast," Buffy said gratefully.
"An omelet," Willow acknowledged. "And bacon, toast, grapefruit, yogurt…"
"God," Buffy smiled, "is everyone coming up here to eat?"
Willow set the tray in front of Buffy and sat beside her on the bed, reaching for a piece of toast. "Angel thought you’d be hungry."
And, as it turns out, he was right. She was ravenous and she couldn’t remember the last time she had been. For the past few weeks, food had consisted of pizza and things that could be nuked: popcorn, TV dinners, frozen enchiladas. As Buffy plunged her fork into the omelet, the smell of sweet red pepper and ham wafted up at her and her stomach clenched in anticipation.
Willow watched approvingly as Buffy ate and when, sated, she finally set her cutlery down and reached for the mug of rich smelling coffee, Willow said: "I’m sorry about Spike."
Buffy swallowed the hot drink too quickly at the mention of Spike’s name and almost spit it out, cartoon-character-like, before regaining her composure and forcing the beverage down her throat.
"Willow," she said.
"I know. You don’t want to talk about it and I respect that, Buffy, but that doesn’t mean that we have to walk around and act like he didn’t exist. He did and he was important to you and we should respect that," Willow said.
Buffy felt her stomach flip and she was momentarily afraid that she’d lose Angel’s beautifully prepared breakfast all over the sheets, but the feeling passed, her stomach settled and she smiled at her friend.
"You’re right, of course," Buffy said quietly. "By all means, talk about him, just, I don’t want to be included in the discussion."
Willow nodded. "I understand."
"No, I don’t think you do, Willow," Buffy replied. "I don’t think I do."
"Well…" she said and then tactfully changed the subject, "some of the girls are thinking about heading home. Kennedy and I thought we might spin the globe and take a holiday. Wanna come?"
Buffy smiled at her friend. "You’re sweet, but I think I’ll pass."
"Will you stay here?"
Buffy closed her eyes and remembered how it had felt to have Angel’s length stretched out next to her; the way he had held himself still and expelled slow, even unneeded breaths to lull her into sleep. He hadn’t even kissed her. Buffy couldn’t decide whether she was hurt or relieved that he hadn’t even made the attempt.
"I don’t know, Will," Buffy replied.
"Well, you don’t have to decide anything, not yet anyway."
"I know," Buffy agreed. But she knew she didn’t have a lot of time to make the decision. Sooner or later the ripple-effect of being so close to Angel would pull the rug out from beneath her.
Over the next few days several of the Potentials did in fact leave.
Andrew taught Fred and Lorne and Gunn to play RISK and they spent hours at the big table in the kitchen, defeating each others’ armies and laughing like giddy schoolchildren.
Wes and Giles sat quietly in Angel’s office comparing notes and writing new ones. They both felt the need to record the events of the past few months for the sake of those who would come after them. Giles was continually amazed by Wesley’s transformation from priggish book-smart Watcher to man of action. He found his respect for the younger man growing daily. Dawn hung on their every word, now and then offering information they’d forgotten in their enthusiastic retelling of events.
Willow and Kennedy spun the globe and closed their eyes and set their finger on Mauritius, a beautiful tropical island in the Indian Ocean. "It’s so far away," said Willow. "Yes, it is," said Kennedy slyly.
Xander slept, mostly, and dreamed. In his dreams he walked Anya down the aisle and when he lifted the veil to kiss her, he saw not the demon, but the woman. And in his dreams he wept from two perfect eyes.
Faith and Wood rarely came up for air.
Mostly, Angel and Buffy sat in the silence. Sometimes, if there was a case, Buffy would join Angel in the labyrinth of Los Angeles sewers looking for and killing an errant demon. At night, they’d sit folded into each other’s presence as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Angel knew it wouldn’t last. So did Buffy.
One day, Giles announced that he was going back to England and Buffy asked if she could go, too.
So, here she was. She’d done the tourist-y things: seen the rather boring changing of the guards, eaten mushy pease, walked the boardwalk at Blackpool, indulged Giles’ unnatural interest in trainspotting. She’d gone on two rather aimless rambles through the Shropshire countryside, counted endless herds of sheep, developed a rather unusual liking for shandies and now she was ready to go home.
Breakfast completed, Buffy picked up her cup and saucer and went back into Giles’ miniscule kitchen.
When she turned around, Giles was standing in the door regarding her sadly.
"You’re going back then?"
"I have to go eventually, Giles," she said.
"It seems rather an ending," he said.
"There are no endings, only beginnings."
Giles chuckled. "That’s profound."
"Or naïve, take your pick."
"Let’s go out tonight, then, shall we, to celebrate."
After his third pint of bitter, Giles said: "Where will you go?"
"I don’t know," Buffy said, although the words sounded as though there was careful consideration behind them.
"I should think Dawn would like to see you."
"Yes. I need to see her, although I guess we’ll be like two ships passing in the night, won’t we?"
Giles smiled. They had decided that Dawn would come to England and finish high school under his careful eye. He’d seen Buffy through the worst of it and he could do the same for Dawn. Insurance from the "natural disaster" in Sunnydale had provided former residents with enough money to see them through, depending on how they spent it. Dawn had insisted that she and Buffy split the money 50-50 and so, for the first time in forever, Buffy didn’t have to worry about how she was going to make ends meet. Although the flip side of that coin was that she didn’t actually have any ends, unless you counted the ones that were loose.
"She’s been having a lot of fun with Wesley. I’d say that girl has Watcher potential," Giles said.
"Not much of a life, being a Watcher," Buffy mused.
"I’ve no complaints."
Buffy took a sip of her gin and tonic, another drink she’d learned to if not enjoy, appreciate.
"Buffy," Giles said.
She shook her head. "I can’t."
"You must. It’s been over a month now and it’s time to put it behind you."
"Is it because you loved him?"
She nodded miserably, felt the sharp sting of tears crowd behind her eyes.
"Well, in the end he proved worthy of that love," Giles said kindly.
"That’s not what you really think," she said bitterly.
"Does it really matter what I think?"
"Apparently it does, or at least it did, back when I was sneaking around, hiding him like he was…" She couldn’t go on. Her drink glass swam in front of her eyes.
"Buffy," Giles said, resting a warm hand over hers. He waited until she lifted her eyes to meet his. "Some would say that the wisest thing to do is to choose whom we love with a great deal of pragmatism. Decide on the qualities we need in our mate and then go shopping, like he or she was something we could take off the grocery store shelf. But, Buffy, you and I both know that that’s not the way life works. In fact, I suspect that you know it better than anyone else."
"I never told him I loved him, Giles," Buffy admitted miserably. "In the end, after I gave him the amulet Angel gave to me, I knew he wasn’t going to survive, I said the words, but I said them because I knew he needed to hear them and you know what he said to me?"
Giles shook his head.
"He said, ‘No you don’t.’" Buffy wiped at a tear angrily. "The worst of it, Giles, is that he was right in a way. I did love him, but my love for him wasn’t selfless, it was selfish. I took from him. I used him. And in the end, I let him go to his death; I let him make that sacrifice for me, for all of us. It was easy to say the words I knew he wanted to hear because I knew I’d never have to live up to them."
"Do you? Because I don’t. I mean, what separated Spike from Angel? A soul? A computer chip? I don’t know. I know that Spike was with me and Angel wasn’t. I know that Spike pulled me, screaming and kicking, back into this world after Willow pulled me, well, kicking and screaming back into this world."
"I’m not sure you can quantify love, Buffy."
"Who’s trying to quantify it? I’m just trying to understand it."
"Ahh, well," Giles murmured, and thought, still so young. "Was your love for Angel selfless, then?"
The question caught Buffy off guard. She didn’t know how to answer him. She didn’t know if there even was an answer.
"No," she said quietly. "Probably not."
"It would be nice to think that humans are capable of that sort of selflessness, but it remains to be seen whether we actually are or not," Giles said sympathetically. "I’m not going to lecture you or give you the benefit of my years of experience, although perhaps not many of those years were actually engaged in the sort of experiences that would qualify me to speak about the many faces of love."
Giles smiled. "Suffice it to say, and I am saying this with conviction, Buffy: I believe Spike did love you. I believe that he was fighting to be a better man for you because of that love. Whether he succeeded or not, that’s up to you."
"Let’s get the bill, shall we?" Giles said, sliding out from the bench. "You have a long day ahead of you tomorrow."
It took Buffy a long time to fall asleep on the plane. Everytime she thought about Giles standing at the airport gate, his expression inscrutible, she felt a knot of something like remorse twist tightly in her throat. He was her family, had been her family for as long as she could remember and this separation seemed permanent. No one deserved some downtime more than Giles, but Buffy felt bereft without him and she wasn’t even halfway across the Atlantic.
She paid the five dollars for the headset and tried to watch some lame Ben Affleck movie, but her mind kept drifting away from the images on the screen to the reel playing on an endless loop in her head.
At first the images were a muted collage of patchwork memories: the Bronze, the endless walk down the halls of Sunnydale High on her first day at the school, a fight with her mother, Willow floating a pencil. Then the images gained clarity: the first time she’d ever seen Angel’s true vampire face, her mother’s lifeless form sprawled across the couch, the helicopter bearing Riley away from her, Warren’s terror in the seconds before Willow skinned him alive. The loop in her head gained momentum and she was sure she could smell blood and death and Spike’s burning skin in the final seconds before she woke up and discovered that she’d been crying.
Hours later, a taxi deposited Buffy at the front doors of the Hyperion. She looked and felt as though she’d been run over by a steam roller and the oppressive heat of the day was doing nothing to improve her mood. She ran a hand across the damp skin at the back of her neck and started toward the double doors that led into the lobby.
"Buffy?" A familiar voice stopped her in her tracks. She turned and saw Wesley, sitting beneath a tree in the courtyard.
The man stood and moved toward her, drawing her into an awkward embrace. "How was your trip?"
"I could use a cup of tea, actually," Buffy said with a smile. "I can’t believe I just said that."
"Well, yes, a few weeks in England does give one a new appreciation for the stuff," Wesley said. "Does Angel..."
Buffy cut him off with a shake of her head.
"Ahh, I see."
"I just needed to come home. Dawn’ll be leaving for Giles’ soon and we need to spend some time," Buffy said.
"Yes, of course."
"I don’t want it to be a big deal, Wes."
"I’m afraid it’s already rather a big deal, Buffy," Wes said.
Buffy put down her carry-all and waited for Wes to say more. She could feel an uncomfortable trickle of sweat skim the path of her spine before being absorbed by the band of her skirt.
Wes dropped his eyes, suddenly fascinated by a slow-moving beetle that was crawling across the flagstone walk.
"I can’t speak for Angel, of course, but I should think that the timing is rather awkward," Wes said quietly.
"I don’t intend on staying, Wes, I mean, not for long."
The older man nodded.
"You may change your mind," he said.
Buffy shrugged and reached for her luggage. "We’ll see."
Indeed, Wesley thought as he thought as he watched Buffy’s straight spine carry her through the hotel doors and into the dim lobby beyond.
Dawn was thrilled to have Buffy back, taking her hand and leading her up the sweeping stairs and along the hall to the room she’d called home for the past months. A stack of books on demonolgy were stacked precariously on the bedside table, a poster of Justin Timberlake had been pinned up on the wall over her bed and two massive suitcases, wide-open and piled with clothes, were pushed against the wall in preparation for Dawn’s imminent trip to Britain.
"So, what have I missed?" Buffy asked. "Wes was acting kinda strange earlier."
"Do you think I need walking boots?" Dawn asked, flinging open the door to the closet and peering inside.
"How about a duvet? Wes says I need a duvet," Dawn queried.
"In the summer? No." Buffy said, trailing a finger along the spines of the books. "What’s this?" She pulled a slim volume from between two larger ones and looked at her sister curiously.
"Oh, just some book Wes gave me to read," Dawn said non-chalantly, refusing to meet her sister’s eyes..
" ‘A Demon’s Soul,’" Buffy read aloud. "Dawn, what’s going on?"
Dawn turned to face her sister, to look her directly in the eye for the first time since Buffy had returned to Los Angeles. "It’s Spike, Buffy. He’s back."
At first, the blonde vampire seemed not to notice her and then, when he did lift his head and settle bemused blue eyes on her face, he seemed not to recognize her.
"Spike?" she whispered, moving closer.
"He may not remember," Angel said, from behind her.
Angel remained silent and Buffy was forced to tear her gaze from Spike to focus watery eyes on Angel.
"How?" she repeated.
He shrugged. "I don’t know."
"It’s not possible," Buffy whispered.
That brought a short, sharp bark of laughter from Angel’s mouth. "It would seem that by now we should know better than to expect nothing less than the unexpected," Angel said.
Buffy managed a small smile of agreement.
"When?" she asked.
"About a week ago," Angel said, stepping away from Buffy and motioning with his head toward the door. He waited while she passed in front of him into the hall and then joined her, closing the door to Spike’s room behind him.
"I know this can’t be what you were expecting," Angel said.
"You couldn’t have given me a head’s up?" Buffy whispered incredulously.
"Giles and I..." Angel started and then shook his head.
"Jesus," Buffy muttered. "When are the men in my life going to start treating me like an adult?"
"Are you what?" Buffy prodded.
"A man...in your life?"
"Sorry, it’s just that when we kissed back in Sunnydale it seemed..."
"Look, Angel, I don’t know what that meant. I was sleeping with Spike for months and I don’t know what that means, either."
"You don’t have to..."
"Explain?" Buffy laughed derisively. "I hadn’t planned on it. And I hadn’t planned on coming back to LA and running into my ex."
"Which one? Because you could hardly avoid me here at my hotel," Angel said, his voice suddenly brittle.
Buffy pressed shaking fingers into her eyes, smoothed them up over her brow and looked up at Angel. He was watching her intently and she felt pinned, like a butterfly whose wings had been spread open for scrutiny, against the wall by the sharp look in Angel’s deep-set eyes.
"You don’t know what it’s been like, Angel," she said softly, her resolve melting.
"Let me guess? Brought back from the dead without understanding why and not having a clue who to trust. Fighting endless evil without respite. Losing friends. Yeah, think I’ve got it covered," he replied, stepping closer. "You think it’s been any easier for me, Buffy? It was bad enough when I found out about soldier boy but this..."Angel’s voice dropped an octave lower and he leaned closer, "If Spike hadn’t already been dead, I’d have kill him myself for having dared touch you."
"It didn’t have anything to do with you, Angel."
Angel’s fingers sprawled carelessly around Buffy’s pale jaw and twisted her head to one side. He regarded the faded mark he had left on her throat a million years ago and shook his head. "It has everything to do with me," he said and then dropping his hand, he walked down the hall, leaving Buffy alone outside of Spike’s room.
She tried to sleep, but the peace she craved was somehow out of reach. She couldn’t be sure if it was the fact that Spike was alive, here in this hotel, or the fact that Angel was pacing like a caged lion, just next door; all Buffy knew was the harder she tried, the more awake she felt.
Buffy sat up on the bed and surveyed the room. It was useless. Sleep eluded her and she may as well get up.
She reached down for the loose cotton draw-string pants she’d left on the floor and pulled them on. She considered changing out of her tank-top and then decided that there would be no one around to see her anyway. She would just make her way down to the hotel’s kitchen and make some tea. She would slip into Angel’s office and grab a book. She would come back to her room and drink her tea and read her book in the armchair next to the window. She would not hover outside Spike’s room.
She would not.
Spike was sprawled across the King-sized bed, one arm flung across his forehead, the other curled protectively against his bare chest. For a long moment Buffy stood just inside the door and debated with herself over the potential damage she could do with this little middle-of-the-night social call.
He was so still. Even from here and even in the relative darkness of the room, Buffy could count every dip of muscle in Spike’s belly. She calmed her breath and considered her options, moving closer even as she did so.
"What do you want?"
Buffy’s skin tightened as she heard Spike’s familiar voice whisper across the room and crawl up her spine.
"I..." Buffy said, moving toward the bed. "I wanted to see you, to know that you’re okay."
Spike removed the hand from his forehead and turned his face to watch her approach.
"I’m okay, relatively speaking."
"Do you know who I am?"
Spike smiled. "Yes. I know who you are and what you are."
Buffy was close enough to see Spike’s eyes squinting up at her. "What am I?" she asked softly.
"A liar and a whore," Spike said, sitting up suddenly and reaching for her wrist, clasping it tightly in his own and tugging her forward so that she sprawled gracelessly across his lap. "Still, I’m not about to let little character flaws like that stop me from having what I want."
Buffy struggled to free herself from Spike’s punishing grip but it was futile. She felt him yank her hand up hard and then felt cold steel clamp around her wrist.
Oh God. Oh God. Ohgod.
Spike slid out from underneath her and reached for her free hand, handcuffing it to the other bedpost and then standing back to admire his handiwork. Buffy twisted her head around to peer over her shoulder. Spike was not alone. Angel had suddenly appeared behind him, a smile as malevolent as any she’d ever seen on his face.
"Don’t touch me," she moaned.
Hands on her shoulders, pulling her forward, and she screamed as she imagined her shoulders being crushed under the weight of those heavy, cruel hands.
Her eyes flew open and there was Angel, sitting on the edge of her bed, his hands holding her upright by her biceps. "Buffy."
"Oh my God," she managed before the tears came and she collapsed against Angel’s cool chest.
"It was just a dream," she repeated after Angel pressed a snifter of foul-smelling amber liquid into her shaking hands and urged her to drink.
"A dream about what?"
"Spike. You. I don’t want to..."
"Talk about it, I get it," Angel said. He moved away from her, back to the window where he could see the dim beginnings of dawn creeping along the horizon.
Buffy sniffed at the cognac and took a tentative swallow. The liquid burned unpleasantly down her raw throat and she coughed. She glanced up at Angel, noted the muscle jumping in his lean cheek and set the glass down on the bed side table.
"Angel," she said quietly.
He turned his head and looked at her, noted the way she’d squared her shoulders as if she was expecting an attack. He dropped his eyes against the look in hers and found himself focusing on the jutting tips of her breasts. Jesus.
She swung her legs out of the bed and padded over to him. "Sun’s coming up," she noted, looking out across the city.
"Why, Buffy?" And there was no doubt as to the intent of his question.
"I can’t answer that, Angel."
"Can’t or won’t?" he asked.
"Both, I guess."
"I wonder if we’d be having this conversation if Spike were still dead," Angel mused.
"I don’t know."
"Well, what do you know?" Angel asked.
"I know that I had feelings for him. I know that," Buffy said. "And yet, when it came right down to it, he was expendable and you were not."
Angel laughed. "That’s rich," he said. "You sent me away to protect me? I’m supposed to believe that? Like I’d want protection, like I’d even care about being here if something had happened to you."
"Okay, maybe it seems lame, but I thought I was doing the right thing. When I’m around you, I can’t think straight..."
"And you think it’s any different for me?" Angel interrupted.
"I don’t know, Angel, I just know that where you’re concerned nothing’s changed." Buffy slid into the space between Angel and the window and rested her head against his chest. "How can it be that everything is still the same?"
It took every ounce of strength to prevent him from resting his hands in the gold-spun silk of her hair, but he did. He stood hard as stone against the sweetness of her body pressed against his. But if he didn’t act soon, he knew his body would betray him.
"I just wanted you to go toward the light, Buffy," he murmured, stepping back away from her fierce heat. His whole body ached with the need to touch her and he had to get away.
"I thought I was," she said to his retreating back.
Business as usual at the Hyperion.
Between dealing with the influx of Hellmouth refugees and keeping food on the table for the extra people who seemed to have become permanent residents, there weren’t too many free hours in the day.
Fred was baking biscuits; Xander was leaning against the counter, reading from the recipe with his one good eye.
"So, Buffy and Angel, eh?" Fred said, non-chalantly.
"One egg," Xander repeated.
"Got it," Fred replied, cracking the shell and letting the egg drop into the bowl. "Are you not allowed to talk about it?"
"What’s to talk about? Ancient history. She’s got a new vamp now."
"Spike, right? But he doesn’t seem to be of, you know, sound mind and body," Fred said.
"Like this is news," Xander said. "Two cups of flour."
"Look, Buffy has men issues. She could have gone for the normal, all-American guy, but she wasn’t attracted to...the type. She was more about Rebel without a Pulse. You know, the bad boy she could redeem."
"Oh, I see. But Angel was already redeemed, wasn’t he?" Fred asked, sifting the second cup of flour into the bowl.
Xander shrugged. "One teaspoon of baking powder. Redemption comes in many forms. You can get the government to implant a chip...or you can go to Africa and let some demon beat the shit out of you and win one, kinda of like an extra-scary amusement park ride. Or, like Angel, you can screw the wrong girl."
Fred blushed delicately.
"Sorry, didn’t mean to offend," Xander offered.
"’S okay," Fred said. "I get the feeling you don’t like them very much. Spike and Angel, I mean."
"Pinch of salt. You’re missing alot of backstory, Fred," said Xander. "When it comes to Buffy and Angel and Spike, backstory is crucial."
"I’m getting that."
"One cup of milk."
Fred added the milk and stirred. "This looks kinda runny to be biscuits," she said after a moment.
Xander consulted the cookbook. "Oops."
Sweat dripping down her back, Buffy pummeled the heavy-bag into submission, felt her knuckles bruise and bleed beneath the tape, and wondered when she’d ever start to feel something like normal again. She stepped back and aimed a solid kick into the upper quarter of the bag, sending it flying up and flopping back, where she kicked it again and again until she couldn’t raise her leg.
"Perhaps you’d rather beat a real body?"
Buffy turned around and watched Angel move down the stairs, cotton pants slung low on his lean hips, black tee-shirt with the arms cut off.
"I’m spent, actually," Buffy said, beginning the task of unwinding the tape on her hands.
"That’s when it’s the best," Angel said, his voice gritty. He reached for her hands and pulled the rest of the tape off and then shoved her back, hard.
"Come on Buffy. Let’s see if you still have what it takes to beat me."
Buffy narrowed her eyes and took up a defensive stance. "Oh, I can beat you, Angel. But what would it prove?"
"Let’s find out," Angel said advancing toward Buffy with an expression in his eyes she couldn’t quite read.
She threw the first punch and missed. His first landed squarely on her jaw, snapping her head back and almost toppling her. Before she had a chance to recover, he hit her again, knocking her onto the mat on the basement floor. She tasted blood in her mouth and her head throbbed.
She scrambled to her feet and threw herself forward with enough momentum to knock them both to the floor, but before she could inflict any real damage, he propelled her up and over his head and she landed with a smack against an unprotected corner of the floor.
She lay for a minute, catching her breath and trying to orient herself, when suddenly his head loomed over hers. "Is this what you get off on now, Buffy?" he said, his eyes cold and hard.
She rolled away, stood quickly and kicked him in the gut with as much force as she could manage. He barely moved. He rocked back on his heels and waited. "Is that all you’ve got? Funny, I heard differently."
Why was he baiting her? She barely had time to ask the question before she found herself flat on her back once more. She groaned, closed her eyes and then got to her feet. She would not, would not, let him get the best of her.
She swung herself around and landed her sneakered foot against his beautiful cheekbone. He stumbled back a few tiny steps and then righted himself, fists cocked. She kicked again, lower this time, aiming for and hitting his solar plexus, satisfied at hearing his muffled groan. God damn him.
And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, the fight went out of them. He hardly looked any worse for the wear, but she could feel the trickle of blood at the corner of her mouth and she reached up to stem the flow with a battered knuckle. Angel stood quietly, arms limp at his sides, regarding her with hostile curiousity.
"Are you satisfied?" she asked, barely able to contain the need to cry.
He didn’t answer. He moved toward her and kept moving until her personal space belonged to him and her back was pressed against the stone wall of the basement. He dropped his mouth to hers and sucked at her lower lip, pulling the torn flesh and her blood into his mouth; not quite a kiss, but somehow worse.
"Don’t," she tried to say, but then he was kissing her and she had no air for words or for breath.
The kiss was interminable. Buffy felt as though she was floating, despite the scratchy concrete at her back, despite the dank smell from the nearby tunnels, despite the hard ridge of Angel’s obvious arousal, which pressed decadently against her hip bone. Every inch of her ached with the need to be touched by him. That had never gone away, would never go away. But she could sense that something had changed for him and she didn’t know what it was until she reached up boneless arms to caress his hair.
He broke away from her, stepped back, his eyes flat, lifeless brown discs and said "I’m satisfied now."
Then, with a smirk, he left her, panting and wanting...more.
A long hot shower did nothing to relieve the ache. She refused to give in to the urge to touch herself, to make the pent up frustration and anger go away. He can go to hell, she thought, lathering her hair for a third time.
Later, she dried her hair, assessed her white capri pants and floral belly shirt in the mirror and headed out the door and down the hall.
The hotel was unusually quiet. She swept down the stairs and into an empty lobby. She moved down the hall toward the kitchen; not a sound. A pile of lopsided overly-brown biscuits were stacked haphazardly on plate on the counter.
"Hello," Buffy called. Silence answered. "Weird."
Buffy contemplated the biscuits, and then headed for the refrigerator, reaching for a can of soda. When she turned back around, Spike was standing at the entrance to the kitchen.
His eyes met hers across the room. Same startling blue.
"Are you...Do you need something?" she asked.
"I don’t know. I’m hungry, I think," he said.
Buffy nodded and turned to pull the frig door open again. Angel’s blood bags hung in a neat row next to the cartons of juice and milk. She reached in and pulled one down and turned back to Spike. He was standing right behind her and Buffy got the distinct sense he was smelling her although she couldn’t say for sure. His face was expressionless.
"Here," she said, holding out the bag.
He looked down at her hand, at the soft plastic bag and wrinkled his nose. "What in the hell is that supposed to be?"
"Blo...oh my God," Buffy said. She reached up a shaking hand and placed it on his chest, retracting it quickly as though she’d been burned. "You’re alive," she whispered.
"Are you daft, love?" Spike said, moving past her and reached into the still-open refrigerator.
Buffy stood shock-still, her unforgotten soda sweaty in her hand, her eyes unable to focus on the sight of Spike pulling back the tab of his own soda and taking a long, thirsty swallow.
"What’s this then?" he said, reaching back into the frig for a wrapped left-over hero sandwich. Pulling back the plastic, he took a healthy mouthful and then, eyeing her suspiciously he said: "Are you alright? You look as though you’ve seen a ghost." Spike closed the frig door and stepped away from Buffy with as little interest in her as if they’d passed each other on a crowded busy street.
"Do you know me?" Buffy asked, her voice a whisper.
"Yeah, of course. You’re Buffy, right. Angel did a chart," Spike said, taking another bite of his sandwich. "Well, not a chart really, but he told me who everyone was. Bloke’s a bit anal if you ask me."
"Did he tell you what everyone was? Did he tell you that?"
Spike shrugged. "I’m on a need to know basis."
"Apparently I am, too."
Spike smiled sympathetically. "See you ‘round," he said, tipping his can toward her and disappearing from the room.
"You bastard!" Buffy yelled. She’d stormed through the hotel’s empty corridors, smashing her still tender fists against walls and screaming to the silence. She screamed so loudly that by the time she’d calmed down, her voice was raw and hoarse with the effort. Wherever everyone was, they didn’t appear to be within shouting distance.
Buffy saw two choices in front of her: get the hell out of LA. Again. Or try to figure out what was making both the men in her life act so weird. Her inclination was to run, but hadn’t that been what England had been all about? She’s barely touched down after the whole battle with Caleb and the First before she’d high-tailed it out of there.
She remembered all too well the affect Angel had had on her when he’d suddenly arrived in Sunnydale. There were people in your life who could weave in and out of your days as effortlessly as a skiier navigating pylons. Well, perhaps not effortlessly, because where there was Angel, there was most definitely effort. Still, his hand on hers, hauling her up from the dusty stone floor of the tomb, had been the most, well, let’s just say that Buffy still felt the tingle of his touch in her fingertips.
For some reason Buffy wanted to call the kiss well above average, but that would imply that Angel’s kisses were average on occasion and that simply wasn’t true. Angel was born to kiss. And her mouth had been built to receive those kisses. Nothing before nor since had prepared her for the devastation of Angel’s mouth on hers.
But none of it mattered. Romeo and Juliet, my ass, Buffy thought. They had it easy. They both died.
The fight drained out of her in increments. With nobody there to fuel it, and without the true desire to hold onto it, Buffy finally let it go. For a long moment, she wished Willow was there to talk to; she had a sudden, sharp longing for the old days. Not the Hellmouth or Sunnydale High or the endless fight, but the comraderie and, despite the whole evil-dead thing, the innocence.
She felt slightly morbid thinking back on her life when her life had barely begun, but for a long time now Buffy had been weighted down with regret and remorse and she was tired. She wanted to lay her head down.
Coming back to LA should have been easy and she couldn’t be sure what had complicated the works: Spike or Angel or both.
She knew one thing, though. It was going to get bloody.
Willow’s arrival back at the Hyperion a few days later was a welcome respite from the tension, which permeated the cavernous building. No matter how hard she tried to stay out of Angel’s way, they invariably bumped into each other in the kitchen or in the hall.
Buffy would find something other than Angel’s burning eyes to focus on and then she’d slide past him with a mumbled hello. They could manage nothing more than that unless they were in a group discussing a case. Alone, in the deafening silence of her room Buffy made endless lists; carefully weighing the pros and cons of staying in LA or relocating to some remote city where she could begin a new life that had nothing to do with the old. Unfortunately, this is where a little piece of "mom-logic" would float through her brain: Honey, it never does any good to run away from your problems. They always follow you, like you packed them without even knowing it.
Post jet lag, Willow and Buffy sat in the Hyperion’s garden and looked at Willow’s vacation photos. "Rum factory," Willow said, pointing to a dilapidated, gray building. "Oh, me drinking rum!" she exclaimed pointing to another.
"There aren’t very many of Kennedy," Buffy said.
Willow shrugged. "We were not in picture taking mode when we first got there," Willow said, "if you know what I mean."
Buffy smiled. "Yeah, I do."
Willow took the snapshots out of Buffy’s hands and set them on the bench beside her. "Enough with the pictures," she said seriously.
Buffy folded her suddenly empty hands in her lap and waited. She wanted to be able to unload all the pent- up confusion and frustration on Willow’s slight shoulders, but she didn’t even know where to start. Sharing used to be so easy and now came only with great effort. She felt so far removed from her friends. She hadn’t even been able to tell Xander how badly she’d felt about Anya. Death had lost its impact on her, although she suspected that her friends were still horrified by its finality. Anya. Gone. Forever. For Buffy this was a fact of life.
"You’ve seen him, right?" Buffy asked, finally.
"How does he seem to you?"
"Like Spike. Only not."
"Exactly. So, is he the man I knew or is he just the body of the man I knew?" Buffy queried.
Willow considered the question. "Has anyone been able to find out anything about why he came back?"
"I was sorta hoping you might be able to help with that," Buffy said. "Dawn tried. She didn’t want me to be broad-sided when I got back from the UK. That backfired, of course."
"Well, everyone was probably worried about how you’d take it."
"And, Angel. Before I went to England he was so…well, Angel-like. Since I’ve been back he’s been surly and uncommunicative," Buffy said.
"And what about you? Have you tried to talk to Angel?"
Buffy shook her head bashfully.
"I imagine that Spike landing on his doorstep kinda threw him," Willow said. "I mean, he was supposed to be dead and then there he is. Plus, you know, you and he kinda made with the smoochies the last time you saw each other."
"And I told him that Spike and I had been…together," Buffy said. "Shit."
Willow nodded sympathetically. "I doubt Angel would take too kindly to being replaced by, well, a vampire. Bad enough to think you’d moved on with someone like Riley, but a least when you were with Riley, Angel could think that he had made the right decision by leaving you. Taking up with Spike probably feels like the proverbial stake through the heart."
"I am an idiot," Buffy said.
"Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees."
"What must Angel be thinking?" Buffy asked, half to herself.
"Only he’d have the answer to that question, Buffy. But I don’t think you’re going to find out the answer unless you ask him."
"I just don’t know, Will. I don’t know where that sort of conversation will lead us."
Willow nodded and hugged her friend close. "You’ll work it out, Buffy."
The case was relatively straight-forward; a Gorash demon was wreaking havoc in West Hollywood. Faith and a better-than-new Robin Wood had offered to go, but at the last moment a strange look had passed between them and they’d begged off, disappearing upstairs. That left Buffy and Angel standing in the hotel lobby, holding battle axes and wondering how they’d make it across town without speaking.
"We should go," Buffy said finally, "before this thing multiplies or divides or whatever it is it does."
"I think it does both actually," Angel said absently, heading for the stairs that led down to the garage where his car was parked. Stopping suddenly he turned back to Buffy and said, "I can handle this. You don’t need to come with me."
"Safety in numbers," Buffy said, brushing past him and heading down the stairs.
Buffy heard his audible sigh and felt her back stiffen. No, she thought, I will do this. I will not back down or run away. I will face this problem.
It was a beautiful, starless night. Buffy tipped her head back against the leather seat of Angel’s convertible and let the air slide over her skin, a humid caress. She was altogether aware of Angel’s hands, tight around the steering wheel, his jaw clenched as tightly as his fingers.
He slid through the thick traffic, maneuvering between cars as expertly as if he’d lived in Los Angeles his whole life and not just an unnaturally short part of it. In less than twenty minutes he pulled up in front of a gay bathhouse, where the Gorash had taken up residence, making the clientele as uncomfortable as if their mothers had suddenly discovered their sexual secrets.
Buffy was about to ask him how he wanted to approach this particular situation, but he was already out of the car wielding his axe as though it were nothing more than a hairbrush.
"Alright, then," she muttered, opening the car door and climbing out. She hurried across the sidewalk and went into the building. A neat reception area decorated with black and white Robert Maplethorpe prints, but unattended, greeted her. A pocket door at the back of the room was slightly ajar and Buffy slid it open and went through, finding herself in a long corridor with several more discreet doors on either side of the hall. At the end of the hall, Buffy could hear splashing and could see the faint tendrils of steam curling up and into the hall. She shifted her axe from one hand to the other and moved down the hall.
A sudden splash propelled her quickly down the corridor and through the dense steam into the large bath room. Now she couldn’t see a thing, but she could hear scuffling from somewhere in the room.
"Angel?" she called, stepping forward.
Without warning she was flung forward. Her axe went sailing out of her hand, clattering against the mosaic tiles, out of reach. She whirled around, catching something large and solid with a raised foot. "Angel," she called again, squinting through the steam and trying to catch a glimpse of the vampire. She felt as though she was at a serious disadvantage. She didn’t even know what a Gorash demon looked like or what its weaknesses or strengths were. All she knew was that it could multiply and divide and Buffy didn’t think Angel had been talking about its math skills.
Buffy took two quick steps back and felt her balance teeter. Oh, just perfect, she thought as she careened backwards into the steaming water. As soon as the water hit her bare skin she yelped. It was hot, scalding hot, and her skin prickled in immediate reaction.
Buffy pushed herself up and grabbed the edge of the shallow pool, scanning the room quickly, looking for signs of movement or something to indicate that Angel had not totally abandoned her.
"Buffy!" Angel’s voice split through the steam and Buffy turn her head in its direction. "Duck!"
Without thought, Buffy plunged back into the water, shutting her eyes and taking a large gulp of air before she submerged herself. Mere seconds later, she felt hands grab her shirt and she was suddenly standing, dripping beside her saviour.
"What was that all about?" she sputtered, altogether aware that her relatively skimpy top was plastered to her like a second skin.
Angel pointed with his dripping weapon. "Dead Gorash demon," he said simply.
"Do you think you might have waited for me?" Buffy said crossly.
"I told you that I could handle this," Angel replied. "And I did."
Buffy lifted the bottom of her shirt away from her stomach, peeling up and squeezing the dripping ends with her fingers. The heat in the room was oppressive, but she suddenly felt chilled, her nipples twisting under Angel’s appraising gaze.
"Where is everyone anyway?" Buffy asked scanning the room and spotting her axe, she walked over to retrieve it. When she stood up and turned, Angel was right behind her.
"Are you planning on staying in Los Angeles?" he asked, his voice low.
It wasn’t the question that startled her. She’d asked herself that same question almost every day since she’d returned from England and found not one but two vampires waiting for her. Well, not two vampires, technically. It was the cold, flat look in Angel’s eyes that made Buffy hesitate.
Buffy could feel an answer swimming around in her head. Her tongue curled to say the words, but it was too late, Angel had bent down and pressed his lips to hers, effectively cutting off any attempt to give the words a voice.
She tried to step back away from the kiss, but he followed her and she felt his hard, cool hands pressed into the small of her back, felt the long, hard length of him against her wet clothes. She couldn’t resist the tingle that emanated from her lips; she opened her mouth and let his tongue sweep into her mouth. Oh God.
It wasn’t fair that her body still reacted to his with such immediate abandon. It wasn’t fair that the minute he touched her she felt an overwhelming feeling of both well-being and terror. It wasn’t fair that she should feel so conflicted.
She moaned against his mouth and felt has hands reach up to tangle in her wet hair, gentle fingers pushing wet strands away from her face. Without even knowing how it happened, Buffy found herself pressed against the tiled, sweating wall of the room.
"You can’t stay in LA, Buffy," Angel mumbled against her mouth.
"I know," she mumbled back. She felt his fingers skim across her symmetrical collarbones and then heard the wet material of her shirt tear.
"You have to stop," she whispered urgently, settling her shaking hands in his hair even as he fell to his knees and settled his hands on her breasts, testing the weight of them as though he’d never before held them. "Angel."
"Shhh," he said.
Buffy rested her head against the wall and closed her eyes. She didn’t open them when Angel pressed a cool kiss to her navel, or when he unclasped the flimsy bra that covered her aching breasts or when she heard the zipper on her capris.
The air around them, moist and heavy, cocooned them; made the world beyond the Roman bath seem impossibly remote. For a long moment the only thing Buffy felt against her skin was that heavy air, the only thing she heard was her own ragged breathing. When she opened her eyes, she was surprised to see Angel kneeling in front of her, still as stone.
"I wanted to make sure that he hadn’t marked you; that there wasn’t any trace of him on you," Angel said, the tenderness gone from his voice.
Buffy felt her face flush, her body temperature plummeting against the look in Angel’s eyes. She crossed her arms protectively against her breasts.
"Don’t bother," he said, reaching up and pulling her arms down. "I’ve seen you naked before, Buffy."
She met Angel’s eyes with her own and dropped her arms defiantly. So be it.
"What do you want me to say, Angel?" Buffy said. "Do you want me to apologize? Do you want me to pretend it never happened?"
Angel stood, his height a startling reminder of the power in his body. "If he weren’t human, I’d have killed him already."
"Proving what?" Buffy asked. "That you’re a jealous thug?"
Angel smirked. "You don’t understand the way it works."
"Oh, I think I understand the concept of jealousy well enough," Buffy said.
Angel stepped closer and Buffy shrank back against the wall. He bent his head down, low to her ear, and still he spoke so softly that she had to strain to hear the words.
"Did he make you come? Did he make you scream his name? Were you hot for him?"
Buffy tried to wriggle away, but Angel trapped her against the wall by wrapping his hands around her biceps. "Let me go," she said.
"The only thing I ever wanted more than blood was you," he said, looking down into her wide eyes. "The possibility of being human was never as important as knowing that you loved me. None of those human whelps you took up with ever threatened me. But Spike, that eats me up."
"Don’t," he cautioned. He let go of her arms and stepped back. "Back in Sunnydale you told me that you weren’t ready. That you were, what was the term you used, like cookie dough. Then you come back to LA and flaunt what I clearly can’t have in my face."
"You think Spike being here changes anything, Angel?" Buffy asked. "Yeah, sure, he was a shock and you might have done a little something to prepare me for it, but whatever. Spike isn’t what’s in the way."
"So you don’t love him?"
"He walks like Spike and talks like Spike, but that man in your hotel isn’t Spike, not really."
"It’s temporary, Buffy. This amnesia, it won’t last. You remember?"
And she did. Angel’s sudden, unexpected arrival back to earth from a hell dimension; an uncertain, shivering version of his former self.
"You remembered, Angel," she said. "You remembered me."
Angel closed his eyes at the memory. Of course he’d remembered her. What had sustained him through the endless centuries of pain and longing was that memory: her golden skin, her depthless eyes, her beating heart.
His eyes snapped open and he said: "It’s not the same, though, is it. I didn’t come back human. Still had all my dead and pointy bits attached."
Buffy bent down to retrieve her shredded top and bra. She slipped the undergarment on and fastened the hook between her breasts. She slipped her arms through the sleeve holes of the clammy shirt and knotted it to keep it closed. She bent again and pulled on her pants, not bothering with her underwear, which she shoved into the back pocket of her pants.
"We’re done here, right?" she said.
"Should we get rid of that?" she asked, pointing to the dead Gorash.
Angel shrugged. "I’ll call Gunn."
Buffy slipped past him and headed across the room, and down the hall. She wanted a bath and her bed. In the morning, she would have no choice but to consider her options. Her nerves were shredded and her hormones were obviously on overdrive. There was no way she could spend any more time at the Hyperion with Angel without things getting completely out of control.
She woke with a start, disoriented. She had no idea how long she’d been asleep; she wasn’t even sure when she’d fallen asleep. And she knew she wasn’t alone. She reached across to the bedside lamp when a voice stopped her: "Leave it."
Buffy’s heart jumped into her throat. Spike. Not human, unaware Spike. Her Spike. She could hear it in his voice; a swaggering self-assurance. Buffy felt exposed.
"How long have you been sitting there?" she asked.
"Not long," he said and then added, "long enough."
"What do you want?"
Spike stood and moved, cat-like, to the bed where he sat, uninvited. The whites of his eyes gleamed in the murky light of the room.
"I remember," he said. "What you did. What came after."
Buffy said nothing, felt her jaw pull tight.
"Funny thing, I was ready for it," Spike said. "For the sacrifice, I mean, even though I knew what it meant."
"What did it mean?" Buffy asked, wondering herself.
"That I was willing to die," Spike said. "When you’ve been alive, so to speak, for over a century it’s a pretty big thing to give up."
"But you did. Why?"
Spike didn’t answer. He leaned forward and Buffy, reflexively, leaned back. She waited.
"I saw you in the crypt when you killed Caleb," Spike said, his words measured. There was no mistaking what else he had seen.
"It was a knife in the gut to see you kiss him," Spike said. "Not the kiss so much, really. More the look on your face when you saw him, when you stepped into his arms."
There was nothing Buffy could say.
"You never once looked at me like that, Buffy."
"Spike, I did love you."
Buffy swallowed a response and nodded instead, not trusting her voice.
"Well, then, that’s something."
Buffy lifted her hand and touched the delicate hollow beneath Spike’s cliff of cheekbone. His skin was warm.
"I could give it all up, then," Spike continued after a moment of silence. "I could give up that life and that body, not because I knew this would come after, but because I knew with certainty that what we had was over."
"It didn’t feel over to me," Buffy said, her fingers slipping down his face and into her lap.
Spike smiled. "It didn’t feel over because you never let it begin, love," Spike replied.
"I went to England with Giles, you know," Buffy said, as if that would explain everything. "I didn’t come running back here expecting to just pick things up where we left off with Angel."
"It doesn’t matter, really," Spike said.
"I just wanted you to know," she said. "How do you feel?"
Spike considered the question. "Clean," he said, finally. "Purged. Free. Pick your cliché." He stood and stepped away from the bed. "If I was a better man, I’d stay and fight for you, Buffy."
Buffy couldn’t help a little smile.
"Truth is, I’m not even sure I remember how to be a man."
"You’ve made a good start," she said kindly.
"Thank you," he said. At the door he turned back. "Maybe our paths will cross again someday Buffy Summers."
"I hope so," she said, although neither of them could be sure whether she actually meant it.
Angel watched Buffy get into the taxi from the window on the second floor landing. There had been no goodbyes, no promises, no guarantees. She’d come to him at dawn and sat with him, watching the sun push light out across the horizon, spilling through the nearly empty streets.
"We’re never going to get it right, are we?" he’d asked finally, turning away from the day, watching as the morning light illuminated her perfect face.
She’d reached across to him and held out her hand, almost wept when she felt his cool palm slide across hers.
"This was the first place I thought to come after the end," she said quietly, afraid to disturb the fragile stillness of the morning. "It never occurred to me to go anywhere else."
"Funny," Angel said, "it never occurred to me that you’d come anywhere but here either. Arrogant, I know."
"Not arrogant, Angel," Buffy disagreed.
"Spike left," he said.
"I acted," he paused, searching for the right word.
"Like an ass?" Buffy said.
He nodded, a small concession.
"I’m not ready to face a future without demons and the Hellmouth, without my mother," she said. "For as long as I can remember, I’ve been defined by my calling, Angel. I’m not sure if I know how to be anything else but a Slayer. I know that seems like a big contradiction, I spent so many years trying to get away from it."
Angel turned away from her and looked back out the window. "Most people only get one chance, Buffy. One life," he said.
"I’ll go back to England for a little bit to see Dawn, I think. Willow’s going back over to spend some more time studying with the coven so…" she drifted off.
"It’s okay Buffy, I don’t need your itinerary."
Buffy turned back to the window. "You know," she mused, "it’s funny, but I never get over the fact that I can’t see your reflection."
"You get used to it."
Buffy lifted her fingers and touched the windowpane where Angel’s face should have been. "I should go."
And so, here he was, watching the taxi pull away from the curb; watching Willow’s red head bend forward, her slim arm slung around Buffy’s slender shoulder, pulling her into the comfort of a friendly embrace. Angel indulged a moment of regret and let the ache of letting her go again settle into the lifeless space under his ribs.
But not for long. There was work to be done. Troops to rally and demons to fight. Angel had to get on with the business of living. The road to redemption was arduous, and the way home was a path marked with mistakes and good intentions. For a second it hurt so much that Angel almost felt alive.
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