The snow keeps falling as Buffy drives. Fat, wet flakes the size of a quarter, pelting down from the dark gray clouds stacked high over the mountains. She's done some traveling these last few years, but she's never seen clouds like these. She'd find them darkly beautiful, if they weren't being such a pain in the ass.
"I hate driving in this shit," she says to no one. Dawn was supposed to come with her; she'd talked Buffy into booking a room at a spa instead of staying in Missoula, just so they could have sister-bonding time at the hot spring. But then that drip from Rome called and told Dawn he'd be in San Francisco for a long weekend, and, well, here she was, stood up in the Middle of Nowhere, Montana.
They're not much on plowing these two-lane back roads, and she's not much on driving in snow. As the stuff keeps piling up, Buffy distracts herself by thinking how she'll describe it all in an email to Xander. He's written some of the most amazing emails on his travels, full of descriptions of landscape and people, and funny stories about his struggles with language and customs. She suspects sometimes that his chatty emails are an attempt to head off discouragement or depression, but when she tries it herself, it tends to work, so she hopes it does for him.
You think you've been dumped in your time, Xan? You don't know dumped until your own sister stands you up. She promised me we'd be sitting up to our chins in silky hot water, and the minute she gets a better offer, I'm on my own in a town that smells like a fart.
It hits her the second she steps out of the car, that smell. Sulfur, from the hot spring. There's a stream out in front of the hotel, sending up steam in the midst of the piles of snow. Smells hellmouthy, if you ask Buffy, brimstony (except what is brimstone, exactly?),but Giles said there's nothing going on here, just a probable new slayer.
They'd gotten a clipping from the Missoula paper, neatly trimmed and slipped into a plain white envelope -- the cheap kind that comes in a box of 100 -- with the address typed on by an actual typewriter. They've had several of these in the last five years -- never any return address, always a different postmark, somewhere near the town in question. The clipping always leads to a new slayer. This is the first time Buffy's been free to follow up herself.
This doesn't much look like a spa. The Spanish-influenced hotel itself, yeah, a little, but it's old and -- well, not run down, but it's old in a way that doesn't exactly speak of money. As she contemplates, a woman in a ratty bathrobe and bare feet emerges from the hotel for a mad dash along the snowy sidewalk to a bi-level pool that releases steam into the snowy air.
"You are so dead, little sister," she mutters as she gazes at the pool.
"Excuse me?" Another woman has come out of the hotel, shivering in robe and flipflops.
"Sorry. Nothing. Just talking to myself."
The woman at the desk is apologetic. There's an event going on at the hotel, so the only available room is an economy. It has its own half-bath, but she'll have to use the shower room or one of the clawfoot tubs just off the lobby. There's a serve-yourself soup bar in the lobby for lunch, the dining room for dinner, and there's a polka band tonight at eight.
The woman hands her a room key and a threadbare robe of her very own, then directs her on how to find her room. As she makes her way to the stairs, Buffy finds an easel pointing the way to the marriage encounter seminar.
"So very, very dead, Dawnie."
After she tosses her bag on the bed and rinses her face (finding, to her horror, that the hot tap water stinks of sulfur too), Buffy heads out of the hotel to get the lay of the land.
It's a town that takes all of thirty seconds to drive through, so she walks, the snow sticking to her lashes and slipping down her collar, no matter how tightly she closes it. Buffy can't walk in snow like this without thinking of Angel. How they'd shared the daylight on that one strange day in Sunnydale -- a rare gift, murky as the light was.
She'd almost lost him then. Such a narrow escape, and all the worse because it wasn't a monster that had almost killed him, but his own despair.
For the first time in years, she aches with his loss. Not the final one, dusted in the battle that killed his L.A. comrades, but that night in June (ash falling from the sky, instead of snow) when he walked away from her.
He kept walking away from her. He'd smashed the Gem of Amara (some selfish part of her had hoped it would give them a future together). He'd pushed her away to look after Faith, despite everything she'd done. He came back into her life every now and then, but he always walked away.
It's the cold that makes her eyes water, the red tip of her nose that makes her sniffle. She ducks into a bookstore, asks where she can find a cafe.
The man tells her there's a place down the street. She heads in the direction he pointed, coming to possibly the most cheerless looking diner she can imagine. The sort of place that defines the term "eatery."
She flicks a glance at the menu in the window, then looks inside. There's a man in a grungy apron leaning in the doorway from the kitchen, and a young girl behind the counter, chatting with an old guy perched on one of the stools.
As the bell over the door jangles, all three turn to give her the once-over. It's like that in these small towns: everyone registering her presence, then realizing she's a stranger, a greeting dying unspoken. I feel like the Anti-Norm, she'd written to Xander. I used to get a warmer welcome in Willy's, for god's sake.
She offers a smile, then sits at a table in the window.
The girl brings over a menu in a big plastic folder. She can't be much older than Buffy was that summer she waited tables in L.A. Her nametag says Virginia.
She's the girl Buffy came for.
Virginia. You don't run into many Virginias anymore.
Buffy lets her fill her coffee cup, takes the menu. As she flips through it, she realizes she's starving. She orders the meatloaf special, something homey on a day where the snow just keeps on piling up.
So does the missing. Since she's on a roll with missing Angel, she gets her mom in there, too. Not that meatloaf was a frequent special at Casa Summers, but her mom knew comfort food. It's been nine years since she died.
What is it about the most complicated relationships that makes them hurt so much when they're irretrievably lost?
"Here you go," says the girl. She sets the plate in front of Buffy, and pulls bottles of ketchup and steak sauce from her apron.
Buffy turns from the window, hastily wiping at her eyes. This was the point where she'd planned to bring it up. Virginia -- say, are you the girl they wrote about in the paper? Who saved all those people? Except does anyone outside old TV shows and movies really say Say... that way?
"Are you okay, ma'am?"
"I was until you called me ma'am."
"Oh gosh! I'm sorry!" When was the last time she heard gosh? When she first met Willow, she thinks. This girl is so earnest. Even her black hair, cut straight across at the shoulder and bangs, gives her an earnest and pretense-free air. There's no sign of the battering she took in the bus crash that got her in the paper, but there wouldn't be. Slayer healing.
"Don't be sorry. I'm totally teasing you."
"Oh." She heaves a relieved sigh. "Well. I'll get out of your hair. Enjoy your meatloaf. Just let me know if you need anything."
"I'll do that, thanks." Poor girl. Buffy wonders if she's ever been past Missoula. Or even if she's been that far. Buffy's about to open the big, wide world to her. That's the positive spin. She's also going to introduce the girl to evils she never imagined. Buffy wonders, as she often does, if she should just have her meal and go on her way. What's one slayer, in a world of so many? But she knows the answer to that: One slayer can make the difference between the world going on and turning into an unimaginable hell. The problem now is there's no way of knowing which one slayer.
Virginia keeps her coffee refreshed, and once Buffy's plate is empty, she comes by to ask if she'd like some pie. "We do great chocolate silk pie. It always sells out, but we have a couple of pieces."
The meatloaf was actually pretty respectable, so Buffy agrees to the pie. It'll buy her time to think of an approach.
"Have you lived here your whole life?" she asks when Virginia brings the pie.
"All but when I was a tiny baby."
"How do you like it here?"
"It's all right, I guess. It's slow, but there's usually new people coming through all year long. And there's the music over at the hotel on weekends."
"You gonna polka tonight?"
"It's the Bouncing Czechs, they're kinda fun." A shadow passes over her face. "I don't know. There's a guy who's been around a lot lately. He'd probably be there. He makes me nervous."
Honey, if I'm right about you, you could so kick his ass. Buffy keeps that information to herself. "What's he do?"
"Watches me, mostly. Sometimes he comes here."
"But you don't know him. I mean, he's not local."
"What's he like? Old and gross?"
"Older than me, but no. Not old. Really not gross. I'd be staring at him all the time, if he wasn't staring at me, I think."
"Ginny," calls the guy in the nasty apron, "stop bothering the lady."
"She's not bothering me," Buffy says, but her protest is lost in Virginia's hasty retreat behind the counter. Great. Well, Buffy's stuck here till the snow stops and the roads are clear, so she might as well back off and have another go later. Maybe she'll check out the hot spring. She slogs back to the hotel in the snow and changes into her swimsuit, then hotfoots it to the big pool. She's used to hustling because of blistering pavement, not the sensation of slush between her toes. She sinks into the waters of the lower level, and lets out a contented sigh. Maybe she'll forgive Dawn after all.
That lasts until the influx of couples from the marriage enounter group, happily chatting about their insights into each other and their issues. Buffy slides under the waterfall from the warmer pool above, letting the rushing waters literally drown out their voices.
The silky waters take her down faster than a Thanksgiving turkey. She stumbles upstairs to her room for a short nap, and doesn't come to until the Czechs are mid-bounce. She dresses in the outfit she'd presumed she'd wear clubbing with her sister, but gives up on the weirdness the hot spring has made of her hair.
Maybe Virginia will be there, and Buffy can get a look at the girl's stalker. Maybe, if life is good, Buffy can scare the crap out of him.
Buffy makes her way across the crowded dance floor, dodging the polka-ing couples. You can have her, I don't want her, she's too fat for me. Swell.
She doesn't see Virginia, but she catches sight of a ghost.
She pushes past the crowd of dancers, but he melts back out of sight before she can reach him.
This can't be real. She'd met a green-skinned demon some years back, very drunk, very rumpled, who'd told her about Angel. She'd had no reason to doubt him. He'd told Buffy they'd all died: Angel, Cordelia and Wes, along with others she never knew. He'd even managed to convince her that Spike had given his life a second time. There was nothing fake about the mixture of grief and bitterness that poured off him. She knew that combination; it had Angel written all over it.
At the far side of the dance floor, Buffy finds a long hallway and a door outside. She takes the more likely route, and heads outdoors. The snow has piled up even more, and she slips in her stupid shoes. She spots a dark form crossing the parking lot toward one of the small cabins behind the hotel. She'd know the set of his shoulders anywhere.
Putting on a burst of speed, she manages to thrust her hand against his door before he gets it closed. "Well, fancy meeting you in this dimension."
"Buffy." He's still exerting as much pressure against the door as she is.
"I'm touched and honored by your extravagant welcome. Really."
Angel steps back, releasing the door, but doesn't issue an explicit invitation. Too funny, coming from a vampire. She steps inside. The cabin's like a monk's cell crossed with a used bookstore. It smells like sulphur and old paperbacks.
"So, reports of your dusting are greatly exaggerated."
He just stands there, filling half the room. Looking just as he had when she'd first met him, his face all angles and shadows in the dim light (he'd always preferred that). She's thirty now, and not the same, but he's exactly like he was. "Who told you that?"
"Green guy with horns. Refused to give me his name."
"Lorne. I can see how he'd assume that. I dropped out of sight awhile."
"What about Cordelia and Wes? The others."
"That much is true. We tried to take down something that was bigger than we were. Except Cordy. That happened before."
"So you've gone back to taking on something that's a little more your speed. Back to stalking high school girls." It's a cheap shot, totally unfair, and she knows it. But it's all come rushing back to her, how mysteriously he came and went, how cryptic his pronouncements were. How attracted she'd been, and how she'd let him burn in her imagination until he was all she thought about. That's not fair, either, doing that to another young girl who's already in over her head.
It's not just her mind that holds the memory of this. Her body awakens to it, too. A flutter in her belly, a pulse farther down that makes her suck in her breath. He's aware of it; she sees it on his face.
"Do you do that to her, too? I always hoped back then that you couldn't tell, but you always knew, didn't you?"
"I'm not doing anything--"
"You're getting under her skin. And you know you are. You're taking in everything about her that she's hoping is still secret, and giving her nothing but mystery. You're telling yourself that's protecting her, but you know damn well that it's not." Buffy feels the flush of her own skin, the quickening of her breath, knowing it's even more apparent to him. Everything she hopes is still secret. There's nothing about her body that's unknown to him, and that was true before they'd made love, and after they'd stopped. It feels like betrayal. "You have no right to do that to this girl." No right to do this to Buffy. She's moved on, made her peace. But now she's sixteen again, wearing his leather jacket, breathing in his scent and aware of every inch of her own skin. Aware of her heat.
"I'm keeping my distance."
"Like that fucking matters! You thought that made a difference with me? That just made enough space for an obsession to grow. You knew exactly what you were doing."
"No. That wasn't my intention at all."
Is he really that much of an idiot? "Whatever you intend, just leave her alone."
"Maybe it's this place." Angel drops into a tatty overstuffed chair. "I was thinking it was just me, but maybe not."
"What are you talking about?"
"Memory. It's hard to get away from it here." He hunches forward, elbows on knees, studying his hands. "When I first went to L.A., the first person I tried to help --" He shakes his head. "No. The first person I tried to help that I let myself care about -- she was from Montana. I keep thinking about her, how I couldn't save her. I was here myself, years before that. During the Depression. A lot of these small towns, you can't really see any difference between then and now. I don't know that I'm any different, either. I try to get involved with people, and it goes badly. So I take a giant step back. But that never works, either."
"She's just a girl, Angel. Let her be a girl."
"She's not just a girl. She's a slayer."
"So let her deal with that!" Her hands shake with the force of her anger, but that's not all her body is doing. The pulse becomes a throb, and the fact that she knows he knows it only makes it stronger. She's always been naked before him -- her emotions, her reactions -- and right now it feels like she'll always be sixteen. He'll always have the upper hand. "I can't do this. I have to be clear-headed when I tell this girl who she is." Buffy turns and wrenches the door open.
"What do you want from me?" He says it simply, sincerely. The way no one ever asks that question anymore.
"Just walk away. It's what you do best." She shows him how it's done.
As she crosses the parking lot, the snow pelts her. It comes in tiny, sharp pellets now, not the soft blobs of movie snow from before.
When she lets herself into her room, the sound of the band is still pulsing from below. She shoots the bolt, switches off the light and settles herself on the lumpy mattress, and for the first time this trip, she's grateful her sister didn't come along.
The next morning, the clouds are gone, and so is Angel.
I'd find them darkly beautiful, if they weren't such a pain in the ass. She thinks she'll leave that out of her next email to Xander.
She walks past the cabin to breakfast. The maid's cart is outside; the car that was there is gone.
When she gets to the depressing little cafe, it's closed, and she realizes it's Sunday. She could go back to the hotel lobby for an espresso and a pastry, but she decides to walk on in the bright sunlight.
How far had Angel traveled before daylight drove him under cover?
Buffy thinks about doing the same. Throwing her wet swimsuit and ruined shoes in her bag and pointing the rental car back to Missoula. Leaving this girl to her brief flare of fame, and then a quiet life. How many vampires are going to pass through this little burg, anyway?
She thinks about walking away.
But she doesn't. Buffy follows the sound of churchbells to an unremarkable white frame building. Going inside and perching on the back bench, she listens to Virginia sing with the choir, songs about salvation sung slow as dirges.
She waits on the sidewalk for the girl to emerge after the service, blinking in the sunlight, giggling with a friend.
Approaching her, Buffy introduces herself. She asks the girl if they might take a walk.
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Summary: The snow makes her think of the Christmas they'd walked together in the daylight. But what he mostly did was walk away.
Disclaimer: The characters and backstory belong to Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Fox and other related entities. No infringement of copyright is intended.
Author's notes: Written for the I Will Remember You Marathon, 2005. The town is real, though not quite so depressing. There are actually two different bands called the Bouncing Czechs. This one isn't either of them.
Thanks: Huzzlewhat and Chrislee.